At issue was whether the fast pace of recent detainee releases from Guantánamo created a higher risk that former terror suspects would return to the fight against the US and its allies.
“I would agree that all of them pose some risk,” Brian McKeon, principal deputy undersecretary of Defense for Policy, told Senator Graham.
But, he noted, 54 of the 122 detainees currently at Guantánamo were approved for transfer six years ago. “We just have not found a place to send them,” Mr. McKeon said.
The deputy undersecretary cited US intelligence figures showing that the rate of “reengagement” by former Guantánamo detainees has been significantly lower for those transferred since 2009, when Mr. Obama took office, than during the Bush administration.
According to the reports, roughly 30 percent of former detainees released prior 2009 were either confirmed or suspected of rejoining the fight against the US.
In contrast, less than 8 percent of detainees released since 2009 have been confirmed or suspected of reengagement.
“Of the detainees transferred under this administration, over 90 percent are neither confirmed nor suspected of having reengaged,” McKeon told the senators.
The comments came in a two-hour Senate Armed Services Committee hearing called to assess the future of US terror detention policy and what role will be played at Guantánamo.
A group of Republican senators led by Kelly Ayotte (R) of New Hampshire, committee chairman John McCain (R) of Arizona, Richard Burr (R) of North Carolina, and Graham have proposed legislation that would ban transfers from Guantánamo to Yemen for two years and impose other restrictions on releasing detainees.
McKeon said the legislation, if enacted, “would effectively block progress toward the goal of closing the Guantánamo Bay detention center.” He said the administration opposes the legislation.
Obama pledged during his first campaign for the White House to immediately close Guantánamo, if elected. In 2009, he signed an executive order directing that steps be taken to shut down the detention facility.
But Congress has pushed back, passing legislation that bars the transfer of terror suspects from Guantánamo to the US and requires the administration to provide 30 days’ notice before transferring detainees home or to a willing third country.
Recently, the administration began accelerating transfers out of Guantánamo. In the past two months, 27 detainees were released to nine countries.
Last May, in a highly controversial move, the administration transferred five Guantánamo detainees in a deal to help win the release of US Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who was being held captive in Afghanistan.
The so-called Taliban 5 were sent to Qatar, where they are to remain for at least a year under an agreement between the US and the government in Doha.
Several Republicans criticized the administration for refusing to give lawmakers the legally required 30 days’ notice prior to the transfers.
McKeon said Justice Department lawyers concluded that because of the security risk and the safety of Sergeant Bergdahl, the president had the power to complete the prisoner exchange without first giving legal notice.
McKeon sought to assure the senators that the lack of notification in the Bergdahl case “has not been repeated.” He added: “I don’t expect it to be repeated.”
Many of the senators pressed McKeon and Nicholas Rasmussen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, for an assessment of the risk that the larger number of detainees being released from Guantánamo will eventually reengage in the fight against the US.
Senator Ayotte asked whether any released detainees were involved in an attack that killed a US or coalition service member.
“I don’t know the data by heart,” McKeon said. “We’ll have to get you that.”
“I am actually surprised you don’t know the answer to that,” Ayotte said.
She then asked whether detainees transferred from Guantánamo are being held in prisons or jails or are being monitored under less-restrictive conditions.
“They are somewhere between open release and a prison,” McKeon said. The host countries, he said, have agreed to impose travel restrictions and conduct ongoing monitoring and information sharing with the US.
The deputy undersecretary said that contrary to some reports, the five Taliban members released in the Bergdahl trade had not returned to the battlefield. They were still in Qatar and facing travel restrictions, he said.
Ayotte asked what would happen after a year.
Security arrangements in the host countries are classified, McKeon said. He said he was unable to discuss those details in an open hearing.
“I think the American people have a right to know,” Ayotte replied.
Senator McCain agreed that such information should be made public. He suggested that public disclosure may be included in the Ayotte bill.
The hearing was twice interrupted by shouts from demonstrators dressed in orange coveralls, similar to those used for detainees when Guantánamo first opened in January 2002.
“Let’s have the rule of law back,” one protester shouted. “This country is disgusting,” he said, while being escorted out of the room by police.
In his testimony, McKeon offered an update on the administration’s progress in transferring detainees.
When Obama took office in 2009, there were 242 prisoners at Guantánamo, he said. Today there are 122.
Of the remaining detainees, 54 are eligible for transfer, 10 are being prosecuted or are serving sentences, and 58 are being reviewed by a periodic review board.
McKeon conceded that there is a risk in releasing terror suspects, but he added, “We believe there is a risk in keeping Guantánamo open.”
The detention camp was a drain on defense resources, he said, and had become a recruiting tool for various terror groups.
The annual cost of running the detention facility is $400 million a year, he said. That works out to roughly $3 million per detainee.
McKeon noted that the Bureau of Prisons pays $80,000 a year to house an inmate in the nation’s most secure “supermax” prison in Florence, Colo.