Envoy says administration moving aggressively to transfer Guantanamo detainees

In the long saga to close Guantanamo Bay, nine detainees were transferred from the prison in December, including the three remaining ethnic Uighurs who had been captured in 2001. Judy Woodruff discusses that milestone and the prison's future with Cliff Sloan, the State Department's special envoy for Guantanamo closure.

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JUDY WOODRUFF:  The Pentagon announced a significant milestone was reached this week in the long saga to close the prison in Guantanamo Bay.  The last three ethnic Uighurs from China were released and sent to Slovakia.  A total of 22 Uighurs were captured after the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in 2001. 

They were found not to be a threat, and a judge ordered them freed in 2008, but the U.S. struggled to find a place to send them.  All told, nine detainees were transferred in the month of December. 

So, just who has been released and under what conditions?  And what will happen to the remaining 155 prisoners? 

For that, we turn to the State Department's special envoy for Guantanamo closure, Cliff Sloan. 

Cliff Sloan, welcome to the NewsHour.

CLIFF SLOAN, U.S. State Department Special Envoy for Guantanamo Closure:  Thank you.  Happy to be here. 

JUDY WOODRUFF:  So there was a slump in the release of prisoners for a period of about  two years, until you came in this summer.  Just in the last month, as we have said, several released. 

What's changed since you have been there? 

CLIFF SLOAN:  Well, Judy, as you know, in May, the president gave a speech at the National Defense University. 

And he strongly reiterated and renewed his commitment to close Guantanamo.  And he's been very committed to closing it from the beginning.  And in this speech, he said, we were going to move forward on transfers, we were going to move forward on closing the facility. 

He announced the appointment of special envoys at the State Department and the Defense Department who would be focused and moving forward on closure.  I started the beginning of July.  Paul Lewis, my counterpart at the Defense Department, started in November.  And so we are moving full-speed ahead. 

And I'm also pleased that we are able to work with Congress in the last few months to change the law in a way that removes some of the obstacles and restrictions that had led to that slump that you referred to.  And I think that's also going to be very helpful to us in moving forward. 

JUDY WOODRUFF:  Well, is that what made the difference?  And how did you prioritize who was going to be released first among these prisoners?

CLIFF SLOAN:  Well, in terms of changing the law -- and the law will be different in 2014 -- I think that is going to help us very much in moving forward with the transfers. 

In terms of prioritizing the transfers, let's step back for a second and have an overview of the facility; 155 detainees are there right now; 76 now are approved for transfer; 79 are not approved for transfer.  And when I say approved for transfer, there's a very important point that I think people don't realize, which is that the executive branch in 2009 and 2010 undertook a very rigorous review by the national security agencies and departments. 

And those who are approved for transfer were unanimously determined that they should be transferred, subject to appropriate security arrangements and humane treatment arrangements. 

JUDY WOODRUFF:  That they were no longer a threat, or...

CLIFF SLOAN:  Well, that they should be -- that they should be transferred, subject to appropriate security and humane treatment, assurances and agreements with other countries, that there was no need to continue to hold them. 

And so those are the priority.  And we have been moving forward as aggressively and quickly as we can on those approved for transfer.  Now, let me just say...

 (CROSSTALK)

JUDY WOODRUFF:  Can I just say, is the hold -- has the holdup then been finding the countries, the places that will take them? 

CLIFF SLOAN:  Well, it's a -- it's a complicated process, which includes, as I said, there were the congressional restrictions which we think were far more burdensome than necessary and helpful. 

There's the question of the countries they're going to.  And in some cases, it's to their home countries.  And in some cases, if that's not possible for security or humane treatment reasons, it would be to third countries.  And that takes negotiations.  And it is a -- it is a complicated process. 

But one thing that I think is very important, Judy, and that I have tried to emphasize and Paul Lewis at the Defense Department has tried to emphasize, we don't want to relitigate the old battles.  We don't be looking backward.  We want to be looking ahead. 

And we feel very strongly there is a new air of possibility on moving forward on closing the Guantanamo detention facility.  That is what we are focused on.  We don't want to go over what happened in the -- during the last several months and the years when there was that slump.  We feel very good about moving ahead now. 

JUDY WOODRUFF:  So, of the 155 left, you said 70-some are cleared for -- how long is it going to take to get those detainees out of the country to a new location? 

CLIFF SLOAN:  Well, I can't give you an exact time frame, but what I can tell you is, we are working just as hard as we can.  We are moving forward as aggressively as we can. 

As you mentioned, nine were transferred in the month of December alone, 11 in the last couple of months.  We are working very hard on all those approved for transfer.  But the other point that I want to make which is also very important is, the 79 who are not approved for transfer, we have also started a new administrative process for them, a new hearing, where they have the opportunity to show that they now should be approved for transfer.  They get a fresh look. 

And that's important as well in moving forward. 

JUDY WOODRUFF:  So it's -- so they may not necessarily stay at Guantanamo, because right now it looks as if you have got several dozen of them who are -- who will be there indefinitely?

CLIFF SLOAN:  Well, they -- as I said, we have 79 who are not approved for transfer.  Eight of those are facing criminal charges.  So, of the remaining 71, they now will have this new administrative hearing. 

That's already started.  That's going to accelerate on a rolling basis, and that is going to be very important in moving forward. 

JUDY WOODRUFF:  Do you believe that Guantanamo will close within the foreseeable future, and that all detainees will be taken care of one way or another? 

CLIFF SLOAN:  Absolutely. 

We are going to close the Guantanamo detention facility.  I have no doubt about that.  And President Obama is very strongly committed to that. 

JUDY WOODRUFF:  By when?

CLIFF SLOAN:  I'm not going to give you a time frame on it, but I am absolutely convinced that we going to close the Guantanamo facility. 

JUDY WOODRUFF:  Why are you convinced, if you don't -- if you can't say how long it's going to take? 

CLIFF SLOAN:  Well, I can't say how long it's going to take because there are variables, and I don't want to give an artificial timeline.  I don't want to just pluck a date out of the air and say it. 

But those who have been approved for transfer, we will do everything we can to transfer those.  Those who are not approved for transfer will have the new administrative hearing.  Now, there is more work to be done with Congress, because there currently is a ban on bringing any detainees to the United States, including for prosecution in our courts. 

And we think that is unwise.  And we think that restriction should be lifted.  But we are going...

(CROSSTALK)

JUDY WOODRUFF:  And do you think you can be successful changing that? 

(CROSSTALK)

CLIFF SLOAN:  I think so.  And I think you are seeing a new recognition across the spectrum that it's time to move on, it is time to put this problem before us. 

When you look at the facts and when you just take a sort of reasoned view of it, there is a much better solution out there than just -- just keeping them at Guantanamo.  And we can and we will close the Guantanamo detention facility. 

JUDY WOODRUFF:  Cliff Sloan, who is the special envoy for Guantanamo closure, we thank you. 

CLIFF SLOAN:  Thank you.  I appreciate it.