By Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. lawmakers sharply criticized President Barack Obama's administration on Thursday over the disappearance of a former Guantanamo detainee, calling for an end to transfers from the prison because of fears former prisoners could launch attacks on Americans.
They also raised concerns about reports that Jihad Diyab, a Syrian among six detainees resettled in Uruguay in December 2014, has disappeared and may now be in Brazil.
Obama is working to close the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, where terrorism suspects have been held for 15 years, by transferring detainees not considered security threats to foreign countries.
Republican lawmakers worry that the Obama administration is so eager to close the prison before he leaves office in January that it is sending detainees to countries that cannot ensure they will not return to the battlefield by joining militant groups that target Americans and U.S. allies.
"You're talking about detainees who have every intent of killing American families," Republican Representative Joe Wilson of South Carolina said at a House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee hearing. The administration has considered sending Guantanamo detainees to a prison in South Carolina.
The New York Times reported that Diyab said last month he was going on a religious retreat that would last into next week, and would be unreachable by telephone or email.
Since then, some Uruguayan officials said they lost track of him and suggested he may have traveled to Brazil, the newspaper reported.
"Many countries just aren't up to the job," said Republican Representative Ed Royce, the committee's chairman. "... Yet the administration has sent Guantanamo terrorists to these countries anyway."
Republican and some Democratic committee members sharply questioned Lee Wolosky, the State Department's special envoy for closing the Guantanamo detention center, and Paul Lewis, his Pentagon counterpart.
Representative Jeff Duncan, another South Carolina Republican, said Diyab, charged with forging passports for al Qaeda, could pose a threat to the upcoming Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, if he were indeed at large in that country.
The committee's ranking Democrat, Representative Eliot Engel, who backs the closure of the detention center in Cuba, said it was important to keep the issue in perspective.
"Under no circumstances, in my opinion, is the Obama administration simply opening the gate and releasing dangerous terrorists onto the street," Engel said.
FEW RETURN TO BATTLEFIELD
Lewis and Wolosky said only 5 percent of detainees transferred since Obama became president have been confirmed to have returned to the battlefield. The percentage was higher for the over 500 released under President George W. Bush.
There are currently 79 detainees at Guantanamo, of whom 29 are eligible for transfer.
Wolosky acknowledged Diyab had been "difficult" from the time he was transferred to Uruguay. According to the Times, Diyab's friends and supporters say he is off praying and will re-emerge soon.
Obama has been trying to make good on his 2009 pledge to close the facility. But Congress has passed laws making it more difficult to do so, chiefly by barring transfers to U.S. prisons.
Lawmakers are unlikely to lift those restrictions, especially in an election year. They have proposed even tighter controls on transfers in a fiscal 2017 defense policy bill, one reason Obama has threatened a veto.
Guantanamo opponents say holding prisoners for years without charge or trial goes against fundamental U.S. values and since they are Muslims, is a recruiting tool for Islamist militants.
Many Republicans insist the prison is an essential tool for handling suspects who threaten the United States. Donald Trump, the party's presumptive 2016 presidential nominee, has called for the prison's expansion.
(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)