WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration announced Friday that it was reviving the repatriation of low-level detainees from the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, which had dried up after Congress imposed strict limits on transfers.
The announcement comes as William K. Lietzau, the top Pentagon official dealing with detainees, is stepping down to take a private sector job, according to people familiar with the matter. Officials said the timing was a coincidence.
The White House said it had informed Congress that it intended to return two detainees to Algeria under the terms of a statute that requires Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel to certify that various security conditions have been met.
“We are taking this step in consultation with the Congress, and in a responsible manner that protects our national security,” the administration said in a statement. “We continue to call on Congress to join us in supporting these efforts by lifting the current restrictions that significantly limit our ability to transfer detainees out of Guantánamo, even those who have been approved for transfer.”
The statement did not identify the two detainees. There are as many as five Algerians at the prison who were recommended for transfer by a task force in early 2010. In all, 86 of the 166 detainees remaining at the prison have been recommended for transfer if security conditions can be met. President Barack Obama has recently sought to revitalize his administration’s effort to close the Guantánamo prison amid a widespread hunger strike that appears to be dwindling.
Obama had pledged to close Guantánamo within a year of taking office and criticized the prison as overly expensive and a symbol used in terrorists’ propaganda. But his efforts have been strongly opposed in Congress, which in January 2011 imposed requirements that countries be capable of taking steps to control any former detainees and prevent them from terrorist activities.
Lietzau, who will leave his position next month, could not be reached for comment. In an email he sent to his staff at the Pentagon on Thursday he said he had accepted a job as vice president and deputy general counsel for PAE, a government services company.
“I believe we have made enormous strides on behalf of the country,” he wrote. “Steadily and without fanfare, we have made principled decisions that support our forces and put in place credible policies that enhance our national security.”