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Half of Gitmo detainees may soon be gone

The defense bill lifted restrictions on the transfer of detainees at Gitmo. But the facility is likely to remain open indefinitely.
Guantanamo Bay Facility Continues To Serve As Detention Center For War Detainees
A Public Affairs Officer escorts media through the currently closed Camp X-Ray which was the first detention facility to hold 'enemy combatants' at the U.S. Naval Station on June 27, 2013 in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

With the passage of a defense bill Thursday night in the Senate, restrictions on the transfer of detainees at Gitmo in place since 2010 finally lifted, clearing the way for the Obama administration to empty the facility of more than half its detainees. 

"This is a big step forward for meeting the goal of closing Guantánamo and ending indefinite detention," Chris Anders of the ACLU said in a statement. "For the first time ever, Congress is making it easier, rather than harder, for the Defense Department to close Guantánamo."

The vote follows a bipartisan compromise between leaders of the House and Senate defense committees. Although a Senate version of the bill sought to lift restrictions on the transfer of Gitmo detainees to U.S. soil for trial, in the final version of the bill only the restrictions on transfers to foreign countries were lifted. Of the 158 detainees still at Gitmo, 79 have been cleared for transfer, and more may be cleared as the administration reviews the remaining detainees. The restrictions make it easier to close Gitmo, but absent Congress altering a law barring the transfer of Gitmo detainees to U.S. soil for trial or post-conviction imprisonment, the facility is likely to stay open indefinitely. 

The White House had made a strong push to persuade members of Congress to lift all the transfer restrictions but failed to garner enough support in the Republican-controlled House. Still, even some conservative legislators were shocked at the price tag for maintaining the prison, which Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said would come out to nearly half a billion dollars this year

Civil liberties and human rights groups say the bill will make it much easier to close Gitmo. President Obama had pledged to shutter the detention camp as a candidate in 2008, but met stiff resistance in Congress--including from members of his own party--and the administration chose to spend its political capital elsewhere.