- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 14, 2014

President Obama will soon sign a law that keeps a tight rein on his ability to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, even as he’s actively looking for every possible avenue to let detainees out.

The annual defense policy bill that passed Congress last week extends a ban on transferring prisoners to the U.S. for any reason, rejecting Democrats’ efforts to allow detainees to come to the U.S. for emergency medical care. The final bill also maintains limits on the president’s ability to send the detainees to other countries.

“I look at Gitmo as a resource that can’t be replaced,” said Sen. James M. Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican and one of the top negotiators of the final compromise, who said Democrats would close it if they could. “Well, we are now keeping it open for another year.”

The bill cleared the Senate on an 89-11 vote Friday, after gaining easy approval in the House earlier this month.

Now it heads to Mr. Obama, who has grumbled about the restrictions on transferring detainees out of Guantanamo, but has always signed the previous bills.

Still, he’s found ways to move some of the prisoners. This year, 19 have been transferred out, according to data from the New York Times, including six prisoners being released to Uruguay earlier this month.

SEE ALSO: Congress passes $1.1 trillion spending bill

About half the current population has been cleared for transfer and at least five more are supposed to be moved before the end of the year, The Associated Press reported.

Only 136 prisoners remain in Guantanamo Bay, the smallest population since shortly after the military prison in Cuba opened in 2002.

Mr. Obama signed an executive order in his first days in office setting a deadline to close the prison within a year. Next month he will be five years delinquent, and facing the prospect of finishing his term in 2017 without having met his goal.

Last month, he vented at a meeting with senior administration officials about the holdup, directing his frustration primarily at outgoing Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, The Associated Press reported. Mr. Hagel had been reluctant to sign off on certifications that detainees wouldn’t pose security threats if they were released.

That certification is one of the requirements in the defense policy bill, and it’s been an impediment to transferring many of the detainees, since the responsibility rests specifically with the defense secretary, not the president. The secretary must prepare a report about the security situation in the receiving country and evaluate the risk that a released detainee would return to the battle against the U.S.

The compromise bill also extends a ban on using funds to transfer detainees to the U.S. or to modify U.S. facilities to hold Gitmo prisoners.

Democrats tried to loosen the restrictions on transferring detainees, including a change that would allow detainees to come to the U.S. for emergency, life-saving medical care. But that was stripped out of the final House-Senate compromise that cleared Congress.

Supporters have said that it is costly to fly medical equipment and personnel to the base in Cuba, especially as the prisoner population gets older and suffer from more ailments like high blood pressure and heart disease.

But in a victory for Mr. Obama, the final compromise didn’t include a ban on transfers to Yemen — a country that some critics say is too unstable to look after released prisoners, but which is a viable destination for many of them.

In total 22 detainees have been transferred to Yemen over the military prison’s history, according to New York Times data. It ranks fourth on that scale, behind Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

David Sherfinski contributed to this report.

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