The U.S. transferred 15 Guantanamo Bay detainees to the United Arab Emirates on Monday, the largest such movement yet in President Barack Obama’s push to remove most prisoners from the offshore prison before he leaves office in January.
The transfer of 12 Yemenis and three Afghans from the Cuba facility to the U.A.E. leaves 61 detainees, a significant drop from the 242 men imprisoned there in 2009 when Mr. Obama took office but short of the president’s longtime goal of closing the lockup.
The Obama administration has faced persistent resistance from Congress and the Pentagon to closing the prison.
Since its opening after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, the prison has held nearly 800 men. The Obama administration has released nearly 200 detainees, while 532 were released during the George W. Bush administration.
In recent months, the transfers have increasingly involved Mr. Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry and Vice President Joe Biden, who at times have worked to “close the deal” with foreign leaders on resettling or repatriating detainees, officials said.
The U.S. usually pays foreign governments to monitor transferred detainees, and underwrites resettlement costs—for language instruction, vocational courses and the like—up to $100,000 each, a senior administration official said.
Officials wouldn’t discuss specific security arrangements, but people familiar with the matter said the U.S. typically conducts electronic surveillance of former detainees, while local authorities keep physical tabs on them.
One technique the administration uses to find homes for detainees involves leveraging rivalries to get countries to compete over resettling the men. It is called “keeping up with the Joneses,” a senior administration official said. Foreign governments are realizing that “if you want to get attention in the Obama administration, one way to do it is to take Guantanamo detainees,” the official said.
Administration officials said Monday’s transfer results from Mr. Obama’s personal appeal to Gulf state leaders during a 2015 summit at Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland. Mr. Kerry put additional pressure on the U.A.E. during a November visit to Abu Dhabi. The U.A.E. took five Yemeni detainees that month, a State Department official said.
In the U.A.E., the 15 newly transferred men will enter a rehabilitation facility modeled after a Saudi program that seeks to “de-radicalize” former detainees, a senior administration official said. “There is an ideological component. They bring in the moderate [religious leaders]. They provide literature. They work on life skills,” the official said.
“They work not just with carrots, but with sticks” to promote compliance, the official said. “It is built on a detention model.”
The former detainees will be held indefinitely until authorities decide they can be released at a minimum of risk, the official said. The U.A.E. won’t receive the typical resettlement subsidy of up to $100,000 per detainee, the official added.
The Defense Department in a statement announcing the transfers thanked the U.A.E. “for its humanitarian gesture and willingness to support ongoing U.S. efforts to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility.”
The November election could play a pivotal role in the future of the facility. Republican nominee Donald Trump has said he would expand Guantanamo Bay. Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, as Mr. Obama’s secretary of state, said the prison’s notoriety damaged America’s reputation abroad and undermined U.S. diplomatic initiatives.
Congress would have to make an about-face for Mr. Obama to receive legislative authority to close Guantanamo, a shift that lawmakers have shown no signs of making. Lawmakers haven’t relaxed restrictions they put in place after Mr. Obama took office to prevent closing the facility, such as barring the relocation of detainees to mainland U.S. prisons.
While Mr. Obama is still reserving executive options for closing the detention facility, each comes with challenges, officials said.
Asserting executive power would ignite a political firestorm and likely legal objections. So officials are pursuing their effort to repatriate or resettle every detainee determined to not be a significant threat to national security, leaving approximately 30 to 40 inmates assigned to prosecution by military commission or considered too dangerous to release.
Negotiations with Montenegro and Serbia to take detainees offer a window into the strategy.
Montenegro, which long had sought admission to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, was approached by the U.S. last year with the suggestion the tiny Balkan nation demonstrate its commitment to collective NATO security by absorbing detainees.
In December, after NATO ministers gave preliminary approval to Montenegro’s admission, Vice President Biden spoke by phone with Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic.Mr. Biden, in a White House statement, emphasized that joining NATO remained an option for countries that “contribute to the security of the alliance.”
A month later, a Yemeni detainee arrived in Montenegro.
On June 8, Montenegro’s defense minister was treated to a high-level visit to the Pentagon. Two weeks later, another Yemeni detainee began a new life in Montenegro.
The Montenegrin Embassy in Washington had no immediate comment.
As the Montenegro push got underway in December, Secretary Kerry visited Serbia to raise the prospect of Belgrade taking detainees.
In follow-up discussions,U.S. diplomats appealed to Serbia’s historic status as the dominant power in the Balkans. “Do you think that the mighty Serbian nation would want to get outdone by puny Montenegro,” a senior administration official said in describing the bargaining tactic.
In July, while Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland was visiting Belgrade, the Pentagon announced that two detainees, from Tajikistan and Yemen, had arrived in Serbia.
Accepting detainees “further paved the way for the development of our partner relations with the United States,” Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic said in a statement last month.
The push to winnow the Guantanamo Bay population is being spearheaded by Lee Wolosky, a New York lawyer who worked on counterterrorism policy in the Bill ClintonWhite House. He was hired to be the State Department’s special envoy for Guantanamo Bay closure last year after the Camp David summit.
He tripled to three the number of negotiating teams, expanded the range of countries to approach and increased the number of detainees each would be asked to take. He also invited intelligence agencies and the Defense and Homeland Security departments to help negotiate security arrangements for transferred detainees at the front end.
“The continued operation of the detention facility weakens our national security by draining resources, damaging our relationships with key allies and partners and emboldening violent extremists,” Mr. Wolosky said.
Critics of the administration’s Guantanamo Bay policy decried the initiative, citing among other things a concern former detainees might return to hostile activity against the U.S. Earlier this summer, a former detainee transferred to Uruguay caused a stir when he disappeared and later turned up in Venezuela.
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R., Calif.) said the “cajoling and arm-twisting to get countries to accept these terrorists” is at times “pushing detainees on countries that can’t handle them.”
At a July hearing before Mr. Royce’s committee, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehiten (R., Fla.) questioned whether Washington was paying poorer countries to take detainees.
“Why does a nation like Uruguay, why does a nation like Ghana, why does a nation like Senegal and so many others, why would they want to take in these dangerous terrorists?” she said. “Has the administration promised these countries…cash?”
Mr. Wolosky denied any quid pro quo, but acknowledged “this is a tough ask.”