The Joe Biden administration transferred its first detainee out of Guantanamo Bay on Monday, marking the opening salvo in a bid to continue former president Barack Obama's efforts to shutter the notorious detention facility.
The US transferred Abdul Latif Nasser to his home country of Morocco, where he will go free but be under Moroccan government surveillance. The Defence Department maintains that Mr Nasser fought US troops alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001, but he has never been formally charged with a crime.
“In consultation with our Moroccan partners, we have undertaken a responsible transfer," a senior administration official told reporters on a press call. “The Biden administration remains dedicated to a deliberate and thorough process focused on responsibly reducing the detainee population and ultimately the closing of the Guantanamo facility.”
A periodic review board in 2016 found that Mr Nasser’s detention was no longer necessary to US national security interests. But his transfer to Morocco never took place before former president Donald Trump took office.
Mr Trump halted all detainee transfers out of Guantanamo Bay, though he never fulfilled his 2016 campaign pledge to “load up” the prison with “bad dudes”.
Following Mr Nasser’s transfer, the prison now houses 39 detainees, costing US taxpayers more than $400 million in total per year. The prison contained about 800 inmates at its peak during the George W Bush administration, which first opened the facility.
When Mr Obama took office, 242 detainees remained at Guantanamo, and he brought that number down to 41 by the time he left office by transferring them to third-party countries despite significant congressional roadblocks.
The periodic review board has also recommended the transfer of 10 of the 39 detainees remaining in Guantanamo, and 17 are eligible for review. Another 10 detainees are involved in trials by military commission while two have been convicted.
“For those detainees that have been recommended for transfer, the administration is very much focused on looking to produce a transfer,” said the senior administration official, noting that the State Department is in talks with other countries to take in those prisoners.
The Biden administration notified Congress that it would transfer Mr Nasser to Morocco last month.
Restrictions from Congress upheld by Mr Obama’s fellow Democrats prevented him from fulfilling his 2008 campaign pledge of shuttering the site. But many Democrats have had a change of heart on the issue in recent years, potentially creating a pathway for Mr Biden to close the prison.
Democrats in the House of Representatives advanced legislation over Republican objections last month that would defund the Guantanamo Bay prison.
Previous efforts by House Democrats to close the prison under the Trump administration did not advance amid roadblocks in the Republican-held Senate.
Although Democrats now have narrow control of the Senate, it remains to be seen whether Mr Biden will ultimately receive the greenlight from Congress to close the site after nearly two decades.