Guantanamo deal eases transfers ban
Up to half the terror suspects held at the US military prison at Guantanamo Bay could be closer to heading home under a US Congress deal that gives President Barack Obama a rare victory in his fight to close the Cuba prison.
The cross-party deal would lift the most rigid restrictions Congress imposed previously on detainee transfers overseas and is part of a broad compromise defence bill awaiting final passage in the Senate this week.
Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Carl Levin said the compromise could have a dramatic impact on the 160 detainees still being held at Guantanamo.
"About half of the detainees would be detainees that could be transferred to their Third World countries from which they come," he said. "About half of the detainees would remain in Guantanamo because of the prohibition on transferring them to the United States for detention and for trial."
The defence bill marks the first time since Mr Obama came to office promising to close Guantanamo that Congress is moving to ease restrictions instead of strengthen them. And it could signal changing political views towards the prison for terror suspects now that the war in Afghanistan is winding down.
Mr Obama's achievement was somewhat of a surprise, after the Republican-controlled House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly earlier this year to make it harder to transfer detainees.
But the deal to move in the opposite direction passed with hardly any opposition and little attention - perhaps overshadowed by more prominent defence bill debates over Iran sanctions, military sexual assaults and spying by the National Security Agency.
But even with the deal, Mr Obama still faces big obstacles to closing Guantanamo. Congress has effectively blocked him from doing so for his first five years in office and he faces declining authority in his final three.
Yet the president seems determined as part of his legacy to push for closure of the prison he argues never should have been opened and "has become a symbol around the world for an America that flouts the rule of law".
Congressional proponents of keeping Guantanamo open say they felt they had to allow for transfers to other countries to maintain a more important priority - a ban on detainees coming into the United States.
The administration also pushed for the ability to transfer detainees to the US for imprisonment, trial or medical emergencies but lost on that front, leaving Mr Obama a thorny predicament of what to do with captives considered too dangerous to release.
Senator James Inhofe, who worked on the compromise as the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he would continue to fight to keep Guantanamo open even as some colleagues were softening their position.
"There's no place else you can house these terrorists," he said, adding that some former detainees had re-engaged in terrorist activity.
"I look at this and I wonder why people don't want it," Mr Inhofe said. "But the president doesn't and he's going to keep trying (to close it). And this bill stops him from doing it."
Mr Obama renewed his commitment to closure this spring when detainees went on a hunger strike to protest at indefinite confinement without charge, now going on for 12 years. The president responded by vowing to make the case anew to Congress that the prison hurts the United States and appointing envoys at the State and Defence Departments to work toward closure.
"Guantanamo is not necessary to keep America safe," Mr Obama said. "It is expensive. It is inefficient. It hurts us in terms of our international standing. It lessens co-operation with our allies on counter-terrorism efforts. It is a recruitment tool for extremists. It needs to be closed."
Top administration officials, including Obama counter-terrorism adviser Lisa Monaco and State Department envoy Clifford Sloan, made a quiet, yet effective lobbying push to convince members to ease restrictions. They pointed out the annual cost of operating Guantanamo has reached more than two million dollars (£1.2m) per prisoner while other terrorism suspects are kept in US jails at a fraction of the price.
Administration officials say they are working with foreign governments to negotiate terms of transfers so there will not be a big movement overnight.
:: The commander of Guantanamo has decided to move nativity scenes from two dining halls following complaints that the decorations improperly promoted Christianity.
Both scenes would be moved to the courtyard of the base chapel, said Kelly Wirfel, a spokeswoman for Captain John Nettleton.
The displays were set up by foreign contractors who manage the two dining halls and were "not intended to endorse any religion", Ms Wirfel said.
The Military Religious Freedom Foundation said earlier that it had been approached by troops who felt the nativity scenes and Christmas decorations were inappropriate.
Ms Wirfel said base chiefs had received no complaints about the displays, but Mikey Weinstein, president of the foundation, said the organisation received an email from 18 service members who were afraid that any direct appeal to commanders would be ignored and result in retribution.
"They are terrified. Right now, there is a witch hunt going on to find out who did this," said Mr Weinstein, a former US Air Force lawyer. He said the troops wanted to remain anonymous.
Eleven of those who complained were Protestant or Roman Catholic and the rest were Muslim, Jewish, agnostic or atheist, he said.