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.
But even with the deal, 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 clout 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."