MIAMI -- The Pentagon disclosed Wednesday that the inter-agency parole board had cleared a 23rd Guantanamo captive for release -- a Yemeni profiled as an Osama bin Laden bodyguard -- in a flurry of activity to perhaps downsize the detainee population to fewer than 45 prisoners by Inauguration Day.
Sanaa-born Muhammed al-Ansi had been held for years as a "forever prisoner," described by U.S. intelligence as an al-Qaida loyalist who in his teens or 20s swore an oath of allegiance to bin Laden.
But as the Obama administration was trying to put the finishing touches on proposed Guantanamo transfers before President-elect Donald Trump takes office, the Periodic Review Board disclosed that it approved al-Ansi's release on Dec. 9. The panel recommended that he be sent to an Arab country in the Persian Gulf region for rehabilitation, and that he have access to family members who want to help him.
Oman, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates all have programs that match the panel's specifics. All have taken in Yemenis in recent years. And the Obama administration has negotiated deals for some cleared Guantanamo detainees to go to those countries.
There are currently 59 captives at the detention center in Cuba. But U.S. officials, who declined to be named in this article because they're not authorized to speak about delicate diplomatic issues, said the administration could not achieve transfer deals for all 23 men before Jan. 20, when President Barack Obama leaves office.
Multiple sources told the Miami Herald not to expect any new transfers until next year.
By law, Congress must get 30 days advance notice of a transfer from Secretary of Defense Ash Carter. Trump campaigned on a pledge to "load up" the prison and has chosen Cabinet members who oppose Guantanamo releases. So the Defense Department, in a flurry of eleventh-hour activity, was still this week preparing 30-day release notices, raising the prospect of an evacuation flight on the eve of the inauguration.
Since December has 31 days, the Pentagon could theoretically have sent transfer notices to Congress as late as Wednesday and still arrange military transport from Guantanamo before Inauguration Day. It is, however, a risky prospect. U.S. military cargo planes on transfer missions have been late to the base or had engine trouble, delaying departure. In December 2014, an Air Force plane carrying five captives bound for Kazakhstan 2014 took off but turned back because of engine trouble, delaying the transfer by a day.
Administration officials also confirmed the broad outlines of a New York Times report that the Obama administration had negotiated transfer deals with at least four countries: Italy, Oman, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The report said the deals would transfer 17 or 18 of the cleared captives.
But the officials said that, while the deals were secure enough for Carter to notify Congress that he approved the transfers, there was some uncertainty about whether the receiving countries would indeed take in all the men covered by the 30-day notices.
Al-Ansi, never charged with a crime, lost a plea for release earlier this year despite an offer from former President Jimmy Carter's Atlanta-based Carter Center to help him succeed in his transition.
The prison believes him to be 40 years old, although his lawyer, Beth Jacob, told the parole board this month that he's 36. Jacob said al-Ansi has health issues -- "chronic conditions" that were blacked out in the public portion of the attorney's statement to the board --that require management through attention, effort, diet, exercise and drugs.
Jacob said the Yemeni left home as a teenager and was "barely 20" when he got to Guantanamo in January 2002. Leaked prison profiles say he was one of 30 men captured by Pakistani forces fleeing Afghanistan from Tora Bora. All were provisionally profiled as a unit of bin Laden bodyguards, "The Dirty 30."
Weekly Standard editor Steve Hayes on Tuesday called further releases "deeply irresponsible. These are the worst of the worst. There is a reason they remain in Guantanamo today," Hayes said, calling them "senior al-Qaida figures" and "people who are responsible for targeting U.S. troops and U.S. interests abroad."
"It's inconceivable to me that he would be releasing seasoned veteran terrorists back into the world -- even if he's transferring them and they're supposed to be monitored, which doesn't happen very often -- while we're fighting this threat," Hayes said on Fox News.