The Challenges of Closing the Guantanamo Bay Detainee Facility

U.S. scrambling to find resettlement destinations for Guantanamo detainees.

June 18, 2009— -- Shortly after taking office in January, President Obama pledged to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, within a year. But his administration is quickly finding out that doing so is no small task.

Since 2001, 779 detainees have been held in Guantanamo, 544 of whom have already been released and transferred to 39 countries, according to an analysis by The New York Times.

Before leaving office the Bush administration identified about 60 detainees for release because charges had not been brought against them and they were not deemed a threat.

Many of that group have already been resettled elsewhere, and some countries have pledged to take others, leaving the number that still need to be transferred or spoken for at around 27.

Noticeably absent on the list of countries willing to take in former detainees cleared for release, however, is the United States. One detainee, Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, was transferred to New York last week, but that was in order to stand trial.

The Obama administration had hoped to resettle some Uighurs, a Muslim ethnic group from China, in the United States, but the idea was met with strong opposition on Capitol Hill, fueled by strong "not in my backyard" sentiment around the country.

In a Congressional revolt, lawmakers from both parties slashed funding for the closure of the Guantanamo facility, saying the administration had failed to provide an adequate plan to do so.

The American unwillingness to accept detainees on its soil soured the prospects of sending detainees to some European countries, in particular Germany, which asked why it should take in detainees if the United States was unwilling to do the same.

Yet on Monday the United States and European Union signed an agreement that outlined broad steps to help close the facility, including endorsing European countries willing to take in detainees.

Since then, Italy has said it would take in three detainees and Spain has told U.S. officials it would accept four. Separately, the tiny Pacific island nation of Palau agreed to take in a number of Uighurs, perhaps all 13 that remain in detention.

U.S. Searches for Destinations for Guantanamo Detainees

Those announcements were the latest in a flurry of diplomatic activity in the past two weeks that led to the transfer of nine other detainees from Guantanamo. Four Uighurs went to Bermuda, one Iraqi was returned home, as was one Chadian citizen. Three Saudis were also returned last week to their native country.

Last month France agreed to resettle Algerian Lakhdar Boumediene, whose case before the Supreme Court last year won his release and that of several fellow detainees.

Attorney General Eric Holder, who chairs the Guantanamo Bay Review Task Force, and Ambassador Daniel Fried, the top State Department official tasked with finding countries willing to accept detainees, have made several trips around the world in recent months for exactly that purpose.

Fried was in Spain earlier this week when Madrid agreed to take in some detainees. He continued on to Hungary and has other stops in Europe, but it remains to be seen if those visits will bear fruit.

"We're going to work with our allies, with our friends to try to place these people who have been approved for transfer or for release. I think we've made pretty significant progress last week when nine people were placed in different countries. The Italians have indicated the willingness to accept three additional ones. We are in constant conversation with -- with our allies in attempting to place these people." Holder said Wednesday.

"Dan Fried is flying all over the world meeting with people, meeting with various countries trying to come up with ways in which -- in which we place these people," Holder added.

The complex question remains, however: What to do with the rest of the detainees not cleared for release?

Holder said Wednesday that roughly a quarter of the remaining detainees, or as many as 50 individuals, could face prosecutions or some form of military commissions.

That still leaves a sizable population currently in Guantanamo that the U.S. deems too dangerous to release but does not feel that it can successfully prosecute. So far, the Obama administration has not come up with a solution for where to put them.

It is this group that will ultimately pose the greatest challenge, both legally and logistically, for the U.S. as it tries to find a place to hold them before Guantanamo's scheduled shutdown in seven months.

The clock is ticking.

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