The Obama administration may be moving toward one of the biggest transfers of Guantanamo Bay prisoners in years, as part of the president’s slow-moving and still-controversial push to empty the camp.
A congressional aide confirmed to FoxNews.com on Thursday that the Pentagon has floated to lawmakers the possibility of transferring another 17 detainees. The aide said lawmakers will be briefed on the plan Friday — while voicing concern that the strategy is to reduce the prison camp population to “as low as they can get,” even if it involves “a good deal of risk.”
Who is on the apparent short-list for transfer and which host nations might receive them is not publicly known, and could be reviewed at Friday’s briefing.
The proposal was first reported by The New York Times, which said Defense Secretary Ash Carter has told Congress he’s approved the 17 proposed transfers. If this moves forward, it reportedly would be the largest number of transfers in a single month since 2007 and could bring the number of detainees at Gitmo down to 90. Officials described the 17 to the Times as lower-level detainees.
The White House would not comment on the particulars of the plan when asked about the report at Thursday’s briefing – other than to say 107 detainees remain at the camp, and “security professionals” have deemed 48 of them can be “safely transferred.”
“But I don’t have any announcements about any planned transfers at this point,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said.
The administration has faced a rocky path in trying to draw down the final batch of Guantanamo prisoners.
There were reports in November that the administration had to delay releasing its plan to close the U.S. military prison, but administration officials stressed that they were still working on the proposal.
This is complicated by a congressional ban on bringing the detainees to any U.S. prison. The congressional aide, speaking to FoxNews.com, noted that the administration is trying to reduce the number in the camp now, in order to minimize the remaining number officials may try to bring to the U.S. in the end.
In the meantime, the administration is trying to find other nations to at least take the 48 detainees — including the first 17 — cleared for potential transfer.
“The U.S. government is working diligently to find countries who will work effectively with our national security professionals to put in place the appropriate security precautions to allow those individuals to be transferred,” Earnest said Thursday.
Each round of transfers, though, is closely scrutinized and some have raised security concerns.
In November, the Defense Department announced that five Yemeni detainees were released and sent to the United Arab Emirates.
Four of them had been recommended for transfer by the interagency Guantanamo Review Task Force, as of January 2010. But the same task force recommended continuing detention for the fifth — Ali Ahmad Muhammad al-Razihi — saying he had been a bodyguard for Usama bin Laden and probably fought against the rebel Northern Alliance prior to the U.S. invasion. The task force also described al-Razihi as a “medium [security] risk [who] may pose a threat to the US, its interests, and allies.”
However, the recommendation was overruled by a parole-like review board that recommended him for transfer.
FoxNews.com’s Judson Berger and The Associated Press contributed to this report.