Biden administration transfers its first detainee from Guantánamo Bay

By Carol Rosenberg and Charlie Savage

The Biden administration on Monday transferred its first detainee out of Guantánamo Bay, repatriating a Moroccan man who had been recommended for discharge from the wartime prison starting in 2016 but nevertheless remained there during the Trump years.

The transfer of the man, Abdul Latif Nasser, 56, was the first sign of a renewed effort under President Joe Biden to winnow the population of prisoners by sending them to other countries that promise to ensure the men remain under security measures. Nasser was never charged with a crime.

The transfer process, which was pursued by the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations, had atrophied under President Donald Trump. With Nasser’s departure, there are now 39 prisoners at Guantánamo, 11 of whom have been charged with war crimes. At its peak in the years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and the invasion of Afghanistan, the prison complex at the U.S. naval base held about 675 men.

Far more complex policy decisions about transfers await the Biden team, including whether to transfer a mentally ill Saudi man, Mohammed al-Qahtani, who was tortured at Guantánamo and is considered to have been one of several candidates to be a potential 20th hijacker on 9/11.

The remaining 28 prisoners who have not been charged during the nearly two decades they have been in custody are held as Nasser had been — as indefinite law-of-war detainees in the armed conflict against al-Qaida. Of those, 10 have been recommended for transfer with security arrangements by a federal parole-like panel.

The Biden White House, while supporting the goal of closing the prison, has adopted a low-key approach in that effort. Obama made it a signature policy, ordering that the prison be closed during his first year in office — and failed in the face of intense opposition from Congress. Biden and his aides have sought to avoid igniting the same kind of backlash by working quietly to begin reducing the prison population again.

“The United States is grateful to the Kingdom of Morocco for its willingness to support ongoing U.S. efforts to close the Guantánamo Bay detention facility,” a senior administration official said Sunday, while the transfer was underway, and so declined to be identified by name. The official said the White House was “dedicated to a deliberate and thorough process of responsibly reducing the detainee population and ultimately closing the Guantánamo Bay detention facility.”

Military intelligence officials have cast Nasser as a former Taliban fighter who battled the invading U.S. forces in the Tora Bora mountains in late 2001. He told an interagency panel through a representative five years ago that he “deeply regrets his actions of the past,” and he was approved for release by the government panel on July 11, 2016, on the condition that he be sent only to his native Morocco with security assurances from its government.

Details of such arrangements are not public, but in the Obama years they typically included not letting the former detainee travel abroad for several years and a commitment to monitor him and to share information with the U.S. government about him.

U.S. forces delivered Nasser to Moroccan government custody early Monday. Nasser’s family members in Casablanca have pledged to support him by finding him work in his brother’s swimming pool cleaning business, said his attorney, Thomas Anthony Durkin of Chicago.

The Biden administration did not renegotiate the Obama-era agreement to repatriate Nasser, the senior official said, but the State Department did need “to reaffirm” the terms of the transfer agreement with Morocco. They were not disclosed.

A public radio personality with a similar name, Latif Nasser, now of the public radio program “Radiolab,” devoted a six-part audio series to questions about whether his near-namesake’s activities, including a stint at an al-Qaida training camp in Afghanistan in the late 1990s, merited two decades of U.S. military detention.

Nasser, the Guantánamo detainee, had been captured in 2001 by Pakistani security forces, which turned him over to the U.S. military.

The administration has reinvigorated a parole-like process that was established in the Obama years to consider each detainee who was not charged with crimes, to decide whether to recommend turning him over to the custody of another country. The interagency Periodic Review Board has announced five decisions since Biden took office, and all of those detainees were approved for transfers — including the oldest man held at Guantánamo, a 73-year-old Pakistani with heart disease and other geriatric ailments.

The panel has representatives from six national security agencies, including the Directorate of Intelligence, the Pentagon’s Joint Staff and the Department of Homeland Security, but a recommendation for transfers does not assure release. The State Department must still come up with a transfer deal, and the defense secretary must personally approve it and provide notice to Congress.

Some Democrats in Congress, signaling impatience at the pace of efforts to close the prison, have proposed legislation in the Appropriations Committee that would defund the detention operation at Guantánamo, which has been estimated to cost more than $13 million per prisoner per year.

Doing so, however, would require finding a place for the remaining 39 detainees to go. And even if the transfer of Nasser to Morocco turns out to be the first of a flurry, transfers of lower-level detainees alone will not close the prison.

Some prisoners would have to be brought to the United States, potentially to a military detention setting, notably Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who has yet to go on trial as the accused mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Current federal law dating to early 2011 forbids such transfers. The Biden White House’s 2022 budget proposal would restore presidential authority to transfer Guantánamo detainees to a mainland prison facility. But that would be up to Congress.

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