WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration said Friday it had certified two long-held Guantánamo detainees for repatriation to their native Algeria, the first releases from the detention center in southeast Cuba in 10 months.
The announcement of the transfers came a day after the Pentagon official in charge of detainee affairs, William K. Lietzau, notified his staff by email that he would leave his post by Sept. 1.
Administration officials said the timing of the two events was purely coincidental, but their combination spurred speculation that there was new momentum to achieve President Barack Obamas first-term pledge of closing the controversial tropical prison.
An administration official, who requested anonymity in order to speak freely about sensitive Guantánamo policy, noted that Lietzau had a reputation as a tough defender of holding suspected terrorists at Guantánamo even if there was not enough evidence to charge them with a crime.
"He was an obstacle," the official said. "There appeared to be divergent views on the existence of the facility. He just wasnt on board with the president."
The two events occurred as Lietzau was escorting four members of Congress on a Ramadan tour of the detention center. As of Friday, the military said 68 of the 166 captives were counted as hunger strikers, down from an all-time high of 106. Of the 68, 44 of them designated for nutritional forced-feeding.
Some advocates of closing the detention center said the moves were good news.
Wed heard wonderful words before, but the transfers were the evidence wed been waiting for, said Andrea Prasow, senior counter-terror counsel at Human Rights Watch, an advocacy group. As for Lietzaus resignation after a stormy three and half years, she noted, Its not so much the individual, but that it would seem to make sense to bring in a new envoy with a new policy.
Others were even more skeptical. No one will be throwing parties because (Lietzaus) leaving, not me, not our clients, because its the policy that matters, not the individuals implementing it, said Cori Crider, of London's Reprieve advocacy group that defends Guantánamo detainees.
President Barack Obama in April vowed to redouble efforts on a failed first-term campaign promise to close the prison for terrorism suspects. As part of that initiative, the State Department appointed a new Guantánamo envoy, Clifford Sloan, to help engineer the closing, and promised to appoint someone at the Pentagon in a similar capacity.
In his email to his staff, Lietzau, who as a Marine Corps lawyer helped draft the Bush administrations first plan for military trials at Guantánamo, a plan that the U.S. Supreme Court in 2006 ruled unconstitutional, made no mention of any policy differences over the detention center. He said he was leaving the Pentagon because he had accepted a job as vice president of PAE, a company that was founded to provide architectural services to U.S. military construction projects in Japan but that now provides a variety of services to U.S. military and diplomatic posts throughout the world.
He defended the work his office had undertaken as deputy assistant secretary of defense for detainee affairs since early 2010.
I took this job knowing very well how difficult the issues you deal with every day were and I can honestly say that we have accomplished far more than I would have thought possible, he said. Steadily and without fanfare, we have made principled decisions that support our forces and put in place credible policies that enhance our national security.
The decision to send two Algerian detainees back to their homeland immediately sparked reactions from both supporters and critics of the detention center, where 86 of the detainees have been cleared for transfer. The last prisoner transferred from Guantánamo was Canadian Omar Khadr, who was sent home Sept. 29 to finish an eight-year sentence hed accepted as part of a plea bargain in a murder charge.
Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, the senior Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said he was concerned that the administration still had no plan for these hard-core terrorists if efforts to close Guantánamo are successful.
Sending them to countries where al-Qaida and its affiliates operate and continue to attack our interests is not a solution, he said in a statement.
But Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the Democrat who chairs the Intelligence Committee, hailed the transfer plan.
These two detainees were cleared for transfer years ago, she said. This is an important step toward closing the prison once and for all. At a cost of $454 million annually -- or $2.7 million per detainee it is in the national security interests of the United States to transfer these detainees to their home countries rather than keep them at our isolated military base in Cuba.
Officials declined to identify the two Algerians, say when they would be released or whether the Algerian government had agreed to specific conditions. Under U.S. law, Congress gets 30 days in advance of a transfer, and the White House said the Pentagon issued the notice Friday.
Zeke Johnson, director of Amnesty Internationals Security and Human Rights program, said there still were concerns about the destinations of the detainees to be transferred.
The crucial questions are whether the detainees want to be transferred to Algeria and whether they will face human rights violations there, he said by email. Closing the detention facility must not mean transferring people to torture, indefinite detention or unfair trials.
Carol Rosenberg of The Miami Herald contributed to this report from Guantánamo.