President Obama faced renewed criticism of endangering national security a day after the announcement that the administration is transferring another 15 inmates from the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, as Donald Trump and Republican congressional candidates vowed to keep the prison for terrorists open after Mr. Obama leaves office.
Critics fear a rush of releases as Mr. Obama’s term ends, with the Gitmo debate reviving just as the leading presidential candidates were clashing over national security and how best to wage the war on terrorism in the years to come.
“President Obama is more focused on releasing hardened terrorists than capturing new ones — a reckless policy that is putting America and the West at risk,” said House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael T. McCaul, Texas Republican. “We are a nation at war, and our commander in chief shouldn’t be handing back operatives to the other side.”
Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican, said the president’s “reckless” release of detainees “endangers more Americans.”
The Pentagon’s move to transfer the detainees to the United Arab Emirates drops the prisoner population at the U.S. Navy base in Cuba down to 61. There were 242 detainees when Mr. Obama took office in 2009 and vowed to close the facility.
The largest single transfer of Gitmo prisoners under Mr. Obama was announced as presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and other top Democrats accused Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump of endangering U.S. troops with anti-Muslim rhetoric.
The president, frustrated by congressional opposition to his plans to close Gitmo, essentially is engaged in a de facto closure by transferring out as many detainees as possible before the end of his term.
Of the 61 remaining prisoners, 19 have been approved for transfer.
The Trump campaign on Tuesday tied the prisoner release to the policies of Mrs. Clinton, noting that she authored memos as secretary of state pushing the administration to be more aggressive in releasing detainees from Gitmo to fulfill the president’s campaign pledge.
“The Clinton-Obama plan to close Gitmo and release terrorists will harm America’s national security,” the campaign said.
Mr. Trump insisted again Monday in a wide-ranging address on fighting terrorism that he would reverse Mr. Obama’s Gitmo policy if elected president.
Mr. McCaul noted that at least one-third of the inmates released from Guantanamo are suspected of returning to the fight against the West.
“Even more shocking, the administration has admitted that Americans have been killed by these released detainees,” Mr. McCaul said in a statement. “And now the president is giving more terrorists a one-way ticket back to the battlefield.”
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Edward R. Royce, California Republican, warned that Mr. Obama’s plan to close Gitmo would harm national security.
“In its race to close Gitmo, the Obama administration is doubling down on policies that put American lives at risk,” Mr. Royce said in a statement.
Mr. Obama and prominent national security figures in both parties have said Gitmo hurts the U.S. war on terrorism by serving as a recruiting tool for extremist groups. The president also says the U.S. has a moral and legal obligation not to hold people in prison indefinitely without trial.
House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, Louisiana Republican, rejected those arguments, saying Mr. Obama should “instead focus on devising a comprehensive strategy to defeat radical Islamic terrorists, which so far he has failed to do.”
The 15 detainees — 12 Yemenis and three from Afghanistan — include four former bodyguards for Osama bin Laden. One of the Yemenis was a supervisor in bin Laden’s “security force,” and another detainee was an al Qaeda explosives expert. Some of the detainees had been held as long as 14 years without charges.
Statistics from the Director of National Intelligence show that nearly 30 percent of detainees who have been released have returned to the battlefield or are suspected of doing so. A detainee who had been transferred to Uruguay in 2014 went missing this year.
The steady transfer of terrorism detainees also looms as an issue in some congressional races.
The House Republicans’ campaign arm seized on the latest transfer Tuesday to remind voters in Maryland’s 6th Congressional District that Democratic Rep. John K. Delaney “enthusiastically voted at least eight times” to close Guantanamo or support Mr. Obama’s transfer of detainees. Mr. Delaney, running for a third term, is facing an expensive battle this fall against Republican challenger Amie Hoeber, a national security consultant from Potomac.
In Wisconsin, Republican congressional candidate Mike Gallagher said Mr. Obama “is more concerned with his presidential legacy of fulfilling political agendas than he is with protecting the lives of Americans and strengthening our national security.”