By Sam Youngman - 07/20/09 09:02 PM EDT
Senior administration officials insisted Monday that they have made substantial progress on closing the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, even though two task forces set up to plan for the closure have asked for extensions.
A third task force set up to assess each detainee is “on track,” an official said.
One official blamed the delays in the other two task forces on the Bush administration.
“These are issues frankly that could have been and should have been wrestled with over the last seven years,” the official said. “Regrettably, frankly, they weren't.”
Administration officials briefing reporters on Monday focused on the Guantanamo Bay task force, a group of about 65 government officials that has made “substantial progress” in examining the detainees in Cuba and deciding whether they should be transferred to another country or recommended for prosecution.
One official said that “substantially more” than 50 detainees have been selected for transfer, with assurances from foreign governments on “acceptable security” and “humane treatment.” The official said a "significant number" have been recommended for potential prosecution, but the official declined to give a ballpark number.
About 240 detainees were held at Guantanamo Bay when Obama took office. During his first week in office, the president signed executive orders forcing the facility’s closure within a year.
Since Obama signed the order, Republicans and Democrats have questioned what to do with the detainees, with most lawmakers railing against the idea of transferring any detainees to U.S. soil. Some foreign government officials have questioned why their countries should accept any detainees if they are deemed to dangerous for the U.S.
Still, one official said he is "heartened" by the response from foreign countries, particularly those in Europe, when it comes to taking detainees. Spain, Portugal, Italy and Ireland have all agreed to help, other countries are "actively considering" taking some prisoners and some countries have agreed to help but "don't want to be named publicly," the official said.
The Guantanamo closure task force first had to pull together information on each detainee that in the past had been spread across the different departments. Each detainee was assigned to a member of the task force.
“At this point, we have essentially accomplished that goal,” an official said.
The task force is divided into two teams -- transfer teams and prosecution teams. Those teams make their recommendations to a review board that meets almost every Wednesday and is tasked with making a unanimous recommendation on what should be done with the detainee.
If the detainee is recommended to be transferred, the State Department takes over. If prosecution is recommended, the Department of Justice goes to work.
Officials acknowledged that they are working closely with Congress to adhere to the law, and they are being forced to work within the parameters set forth by Capitol Hill.
One official who has been working with foreign countries to try and arrange transfers said he is working with a set of circumstances that foreign governments are aware of, and "they are nevertheless stepping up and helping."
“These are hard, complicated and consequential decisions," one official said. "Let's not kid ourselves."