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Gitmo doors opening

Defense bill gives Obama rare Guantanamo victory

A U.S. soldier closes the gate at the now abandoned Camp X-Ray, which was used as the first detention facility for al-Qaida and Taliban militants who were captured after the Sept. 11 attacks at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, Cuba. Many detainees at Guantanamo Bay may be closer to heading home under a bipartisan deal reached in Congress that gives President Barack Obama a rare victory in his fight to close the prison for terror suspects. AP photo

A U.S. soldier closes the gate at the now abandoned Camp X-Ray, which was used as the first detention facility for al-Qaida and Taliban militants who were captured after the Sept. 11 attacks at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, Cuba. Many detainees at Guantanamo Bay may be closer to heading home under a bipartisan deal reached in Congress that gives President Barack Obama a rare victory in his fight to close the prison for terror suspects. AP photo

WASHINGTON — Up to half the terror suspects held at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay could be closer to heading home under a bipartisan deal reached in Congress that gives President Barack Obama a rare victory in his fight to close the prison.

The deal would lift the most rigid restrictions Congress previously imposed on detainee transfers overseas and is part of a broad compromise defense bill awaiting final passage in the Senate this week. The House approved the measure last Thursday.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin said the compromise could have a dramatic impact on the 160 detainees still being held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

“About half of the detainees would be detainees that could be transferred to their third-world countries from which they come,” Levin told reporters. “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 defense bill marks the first time since 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 toward the prison for terrorism suspects now that the war in Afghanistan is winding down.

Obama’s achievement was somewhat of a surprise, after the Republican-controlled House earlier this year voted overwhelmingly 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 defense bill debates over Iran sanctions, military sexual assaults and spying by the National Security Agency.

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 from coming into the United States. The administration also pushed for the ability to transfer detainees to the U.S. for imprisonment, trial or medical emergencies but lost on that front, leaving Obama a thorny predicament of what to do with captives considered too dangerous to release.

Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe, who worked on the compromise as the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he’ll continue to fight to keep Guantanamo open even as some colleagues are softening their position. “There’s no place else you can house these terrorists,” he said in a telephone interview Wednesday, adding some former detainees have re-engaged in terrorist activity.

“I look at this and I wonder why people don’t want it,” 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.”

“Guantanamo is not necessary to keep America safe,” Obama said. “It is expensive. It is inefficient. It hurts us in terms of our international standing. It lessens cooperation with our allies on counterterrorism efforts. It is a recruitment tool for extremists. It needs to be closed.”

Top administration officials, including Obama counterterrorism 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 $2 million per prisoner while other terrorism suspects are kept in U.S prisons at a small fraction of the price.

“The president directed the administration to responsibly reduce the detainee population to the greatest extent possible, and we would welcome much needed flexibility in this area,” said National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden. “But even in the absence of transfer restrictions, our longstanding policy is to transfer detainees only if the threat posed by the detainee can be sufficiently mitigated and when consistent with our humane treatment policy.”

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