The latest detainee to leave the Guantanamo Bay prison boarded an Air Force jet earlier this week. His destination: Sudan. The man, 52-year-old Ibrahim al-Qosi, had admitted to being Osama bin Laden's bookkeeper, driver and sometime cook, and he was one of the first prisoners to arrive at Guantanamo in 2002.
Now, he is the latest to leave. His departure brings the total detainee population at the U.S. naval base in Cuba down to 168 — from a high of 680 in May 2003.
Qosi, who is from Sudan, is the latest example of the Obama administration's quiet efforts to move prisoners out of Guantanamo.
"It is wrong to think that there are no ways out of Guantanamo," says Matthew Waxman, a professor at Columbia Law School who advised the Pentagon on detainee affairs during the Bush administration. "The population has slowly been going down, and there are several avenues by which detainees can be released or transferred."
Avenues For Release
There are basically three formal ways for detainees to get off the island. First, they can prove in court that they shouldn't be held at all — through habeas corpus appeals.
Another option is that other countries can accept them. A couple of months ago, for example, El Salvador took in two detainees from Guantanamo.
Finally, prisoners can go to trial — either in a military commission at Guantanamo or, more rarely, in a federal court — or work out a plea bargain.
That's what bin Laden's driver did. He pleaded guilty to charges of conspiracy and supporting terrorism, and was sentenced to 14 years. Part of that sentence was suspended in the plea deal.
"The irony is that some detainees who have been convicted of war crimes are being released much earlier than detainees that are not brought for any trial at all," says Waxman.
Late last month, the Pentagon may have found one more way to release a detainee: drop the charges entirely.
The Pentagon announced it was dismissing charges against a Kuwaiti prisoner named Faiz al-Kandari, but didn't explain why. Kandari had been charged in October 2008, but had never been brought to trial. He was accused of training with al-Qaida, among other things.
The timing of the Pentagon's decision about Kandari was interesting. The announcement was made just as the Kuwaiti ambassador announced that he was in discussions with the U.S. to get the last two Kuwaitis out of Guantanamo.
"This administration is trying to use a lot of tools, not just trials before military commissions, as a way out for detainees," said Sam Rascoff, a professor of law and security at New York University. "There has been an effort on the part of the administration to chip away here and there and release at least a couple of individuals and to telegraph that they might be interested in releasing more."
Closure Still A Long Way Off
President Obama promised to close Guantanamo by the end of his first year in office, but that self-imposed deadline has long since passed. Congressional opposition has made it very difficult to move detainees or try them in the U.S. These latest releases could allow the administration to boast that it is taking steps toward shuttering the facility.
Another example: The administration is exploring whether to move several Taliban detainees from Guantanamo to a prison in Afghanistan.
Under this scenario, the Taliban fighters would be out of Guantanamo but still in custody. If that happened, under law, the U.S. defense secretary would have to sign off on the transfer and certify that the men didn't pose a danger to the United States.
Columbia University's Waxman says that even with creative ways to transfer detainees out of the prison, the reality is that Guantanamo isn't going anywhere soon.
"Guantanamo is going to be open for a long time," he says.
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