MIAMI (AP) — President Barack Obama is moving ahead with his push to close the Guantanamo Bay prison despite the uproar over the exchange of five Taliban prisoners for a captured American soldier, an administration official said Thursday.
The government has been working to reduce a backlog of prisoners already approved after a security review for transfer to their homeland or repatriation elsewhere, the official told reporters.
The official said a "significant number" of prisoners are on their way toward release, but he declined to say precisely how many or when they would leave Guantanamo. The remarks were made on condition of anonymity amid fierce criticism in Congress over the decision to swap the five Taliban for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.
The U.S. holds 149 men at Guantanamo. Most have been there without charge since the detention center opened in January 2002 to hold prisoners suspected of links to al-Qaida or the Taliban.
Among the total are 78 who have been cleared for transfer to their homeland or repatriation to another country if the U.S. can get required security assurances.
Obama came into office pledging to close the detention center within a year but was thwarted by Congress, which adopted restrictions on transfers abroad and a ban on transferring prisoners to the United States for any reason.
Last year, Congress eased the restrictions on transfers abroad but left in place a 30-day notice requirement that the Obama administration chose to skip in exchange for rescuing Bergdahl from captivity after five years.
Several Republicans in Congress are determined to keep Guantanamo open and bar Obama from transferring any prisoners.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte, a Republican from New Hampshire who is a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a chief proponent of keeping the prison operational, said the Bergdahl swap represents a "real-case example" that she and other lawmakers can use in arguing for tougher restrictions on Guantanamo detainees.
She said Bergdahl's case highlights "the risk that we take when we're transferring high-risk detainees to third-party nationals that we can't necessarily account for their security and ability to get back into the fight."
Another member of the committee, Sen. Ted Cruz, a Republican from Texas, has said he will introduce legislation next week to prohibit any transfers from Guantanamo until Congress learns more about the Bergdahl case.
Associated Press writer Donna Cassata in Washington contributed to this report.