November 29, 2013

SIX MONTHS after President Obama rededicated himself to closing the Guantanamo Bay prison, his administration can point to modest signs of progress. Two of the 164 prisoners at the base in Cuba were transferred to Algeria in August, resuming a process of repatriation that had been virtually frozen for 2½ years. This month the Pentagon finally initiated review hearings for 69 detainees who have neither been cleared for transfer nor charged with a crime, 20 months after Mr. Obama ordered the process. Two senior officials have been appointed at the State and Defense departments to coordinate further transfers.

Congress, too, finally is edging away from its counterproductive refusal to allow the administration to take measures to wind down the prison and end its use by anti-American propagandists and al-Qaeda recruiters. On Nov. 19, the Senate voted to preserve language in the pending National Defense Authorization Act that would ease restrictions on repatriating Guantanamo detainees and allow their transfer to the United States for trial, detention or medical treatment. Fifty-five senators, including three Republicans, voted against an amendment that would have left the existing, highly restrictive transfer rules in place, compared with only 41 who opposed it a year ago.

The Senate action made eminent sense. More than half of Guantanamo’s detainees have been cleared for transfer, and more could be approved in the new hearings. The rest could be more easily prosecuted, and far more inexpensively detained, in the United States than at the base. As Mr. Obama has argued, “there is no justification beyond politics for Congress to prevent” these steps.

That said, the sad reality is that Guantanamo is likely to remain open for some time. The defense bill is stuck in the Senate and in danger of not being passed for the first time in 51 years. Even if the bill clears the Senate, the Guantanamo measures would have to survive a conference committee with the Republican-controlled House.

Congress, moreover, is not the administration’s only problem. The biggest obstacle may lie in Yemen, the homeland of more than half of the prisoners, including 59 of those already approved for transfer. The nation is a center of operations for al-Qaeda: Mr. Obama suspended repatriations to Yemen after a plot to bomb a U.S. airliner was launched there in December 2009. Its fragile government cooperates with the United States on counterterrorism but does not have the capacity to rehabilitate returned prisoners or detain those who cannot be safely released.

The Obama administration is attempting to organize an international effort to establish and fund a new detention facility in Yemen that could take on those missions. But no agreement has been announced, and it could take months or even years to set up the facility if there were an accord.

Congress should end its obstruction of the administration’s initiatives so that more of Guantanamo’s detainees can be transferred or tried in U.S. courts. But the administration also has work to do: Even when Guantanamo is closed, a legal regime will be needed for the arrest, interrogation and long-term detention of foreign terrorist suspects who cannot be handled by the domestic U.S. justice system. Like Guantanamo’s closure, that legislation has been delayed by politics for too long.