The Obama administration announced Friday its intention to repatriate two prisoners from the Guantanamo Bay detention facility to Algeria, the first such transfers in nearly a year.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said in a statement that the Defense Department notified Congress of the transfers, which will be done “in a responsible manner that protects our national security.” Under U.S. law, Congress must receive a 30-day notification before any transfer.
The administration does not need congressional approval for detainee transfers when the defense secretary certifies that those being released do not constitute a threat to national security. Several other detainees at the facility in Cuba have been repatriated to Algeria in past years.
Officials did not identify the detainees slated for transfer, but Caitlin Hayden, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council, said the Algerian government wants the two back and is “willing and able as a political and security matter to accept them.”
“That we are finally able to certify two detainee transfers under the current legal restrictions should not confuse the issue,” Hayden said. “The current legislative restrictions are cumbersome, unnecessary and, with the exception of a few rare circumstances, unworkable.”
President Obama has been criticized by civil liberties advocates for not making good on his 2009 executive order to close the Guantanamo Bay prison. He has said he has been stymied by Congress in that effort, and administration officials called on lawmakers Friday to lift restrictions that hamper the ability to transfer prisoners.
The announcement Friday drew mixed reaction on Capitol Hill, with longtime supporters of closing the facility welcoming the planned transfers and opponents expressing concern about recidivism.
The last Guantanamo Bay detainee repatriated was Omar Khadr, who was returned to Canada in September 2012 after a decade at the prison. He was released as part of a plea deal and is serving out the remainder of his eight-year sentence in Canada.
The prison currently has 166 detainees. Since 2009, 40 have been sent to third countries for fear that returning them to their home nations might lead to reprisals. Twenty-eight others have been repatriated over that time.
The top Pentagon official responsible for detainee policy is stepping down to take a job in the private sector, a Defense Department spokesman said Friday, confirming a report in the New York Times.
William K. Lietzau, deputy assistant secretary of defense for detainee policy, is leaving as the Obama administration plans to appoint a special envoy at the Pentagon to begin a renewed effort to transfer out detainees.
Lietzau, 52, declined a more senior Pentagon role, said Lt. Col. Todd Breasseale.
In an e-mail to staff members late Thursday announcing his departure, Lietzau praised “the most dedicated group of American patriots with whom I have ever had the privilege of serving.”
“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. “
Scott Wilson and Billy Kenber contributed to this report.