WASHINGTON -- The Biden administration took a step Monday toward its goal of shutting down the Guantanamo Bay detention center for terror suspects, releasing into the custody of his home country a Moroccan who'd been held without charge almost since the U.S. opened the facility 19 years ago.
The transfer of Abdullatif Nasser was the first by the Biden administration, reviving an Obama administration effort that had been stymied by conservative opposition and the difficulty of resolving the remaining few dozen cases, including finding secure sites to send some of the detainees.
Rights groups have called the detentions and detention camp, opened under President George W. Bush after the Sept. 11, 2001 al-Qaida attacks, a historic wrong by the United States.
There were allegations of torture in early questioning and challenges to the lawfulness of military tribunals there. The Bush administration and supporters called the camp, on a U.S. naval base in Cuba, essential to safely managing international terror suspects.
In July 2016, a review board had recommended repatriation for Nasser, who is in his mid-50s, but he had remained at Guantanamo under President Donald Trump, who opposed closing the site.
In announcing Nasser's transfer, the Pentagon cited the board's determination that his detention was no longer necessary to protect U.S. national security. Nasser, also known as Abdul Latif Nasser, arrived in Morocco on Monday.
Police took him into custody and said they would investigate him on suspicion of committing terrorist acts -- though he was never charged while in Guantanamo.
Nasser's attorney in Morocco, Khalil Idrissi, said the years Nasser spent in Guantanamo "were unjustified and outside the law, and what he suffered remains a stain of disgrace on the forehead of the American system."
The State Department announced President Joe Biden's administration would continue "a deliberate and thorough process" aimed at reducing the detainee population at Guantanamo "while also safeguarding the security of the United States and its allies."
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the administration was considering all available options for safely transferring out the last detainees and shutting down Guantanamo.
That would mean succeeding where President Barack Obama failed. Shortly after he took office in 2009, Obama pledged to close the detention camp within a year. Psaki declined to set any timeline.
Almost 800 detainees have passed through Guantanamo. Of the 39 remaining, 10 are eligible to be transferred out, 17 are eligible to go through the review process for possible transfer, another 10 are involved in the military commission process used to prosecute detainees and two have been convicted, a senior administration official said.
Most of those still at the site are being held without charges. The administration didn't address how it would handle the ongoing effort to prosecute five men held at Guantanamo in the Sept. 11 attacks.
Further complicating the effort to close the camp, the chief prosecutor of the alleged 9/11 conspirators this month announced his retirement, raising questions about how the government would handle future trials.
It also has to deal with detainees that the Obama administration particularly struggled with, either because their home countries were not considered secure enough or because they were refused by third-party countries. About a third of the remaining prisoners are from the impoverished, warring country of Yemen.
The detention center opened in 2002. Bush's administration transformed what had been a quiet Navy outpost on Cuba's southeastern tip into a place to interrogate and imprison people suspected of links to al-Qaida and the Taliban.
The Obama administration, seeking to allay concerns that some of those released had "returned to the fight," set up a process to ensure those repatriated or resettled in third countries no longer posed a threat.
It also planned to try some of the men in federal court, but the closure effort was thwarted when Congress barred the transfer of prisoners from Guantanamo to the U.S., including for prosecution or medical care.
The prisoner transfer process stalled under Trump, who said even before taking office there should be no further releases. Under Trump, only one prisoner, a Saudi, was transferred to his home country to serve the remainder of his sentence after he agreed to a plea bargain.
Under Obama, 197 were transferred to other countries, while 500 were transferred by Bush.
Information for this article was contributed by Tarik El-Barakah and Robert Burns of The Associated Press.