By Matt Spetalnick
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States is in talks with a wide range of countries to move "as aggressively as we can" in speeding up the transfer of Guantanamo prisoners, the State Department's envoy said, as President Barack Obama tries to make good on a long-standing promise to close the prison.
Seven months after he was appointed to the job, high-powered Washington attorney Clifford Sloan said in a rare interview that the administration is in its best position in years to negotiate the repatriation of detainees, including to chaotic destinations like Yemen, or arrange their resettlement in countries other than the their homeland.
Major obstacles remain, but Sloan said lawmakers had loosened restrictions enough to open the way for "significant progress" toward emptying the jail and achieving Obama's new goal of closing it by the end of the year. Most prisoners held at the U.S. naval base in Cuba have languished for a decade or more without being charged or given a trial.
"We are talking to a wide range of countries and we are moving forward as aggressively as we can. I expect that you'll be seeing action on that front," Sloan told Reuters this week.
Obama promised at the start of his presidency in 2009 to shut the Guantanamo detention center, but failed to do so, largely due to opposition from the U.S. Congress.
In his annual State of the Union address last week, Obama told Americans "this needs to be the year" that Guantanamo is finally shut down and urged Congress to help him do it. But he offered no new prescription for removing the camp's remaining 155 prisoners.
Human rights groups welcomed the rhetoric, but some remain skeptical after years of delays.
"It's just a first step. Now we need to see action," said Raha Wala, senior attorney for Human Rights First. "We need to see a significant uptick in the pace of transfers if Guantanamo is going to be closed this year."
The challenge for Sloan - together with his fellow special envoy at the Pentagon, Paul Lewis - is to show that Obama finally means business.
Among the remaining hurdles are a congressional ban on transferring detainees to U.S.-based prisons, and finding homes even for dozens of detainees cleared for release.
Sloan is seeking to rejuvenate diplomatic efforts that had been stalled by congressional resistance to shutting Guantanamo.
He said he is giving priority to finding solutions for the 77 prisoners - nearly half of the prison population - who have been cleared for transfer or release since 2009. There has been a modest uptick in the pace of transfers, with 11 prisoners sent home or elsewhere since August, nine in December alone.
Increasing the flow of prisoners out of Guantanamo will be no easy task for Sloan, who has deployed his negotiating skills on behalf of both Democratic and Republican presidents, argued cases before the Supreme Court and even once represented Jon Bon Jovi's rock band.
The biggest complication is still Yemen, home to 56 of those eligible to be repatriated, but where some U.S. officials fear they might join up with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), widely seen as the group's deadliest regional affiliate.
Obama last May lifted a moratorium on sending detainees to Yemen. But the Yemeni government has yet to develop a long-promised rehabilitation program or build a detention center for returnees to make it easier to move ahead.
"Moving forward on those from Yemen as well as those from other countries is obviously very important to us in moving forward in closing Guantanamo," Sloan said.
In dealing with Yemen and other countries where detainees might go, "it's very important for us to have in place appropriate security measures and to ensure these transfers are consistent with humane treatment policy," he said.
U.S. officials won't publicly discuss which countries they are negotiating with to take detainees, but talks are apparently proceeding on a number of fronts.
Four Algerians were among those transferred home last year and discussions could focus on the Algerians that remain. Some Afghan detainees cleared for repatriation face an uncertain future because of tensions between Washington and Kabul as the U.S. military winds down its role in the Afghanistan war.
Sloan said efforts were also under way to identify third countries for detainees with nowhere else to go, reviving a process that stalled in Obama's first term when allies bristled over congressional refusal to allow detainees onto U.S. soil. Slovakia took the last three ethnic Uighur Chinese inmates last month.
Even with stepped-up transfers, Guantanamo's closure is in doubt unless the administration can figure out what to do with the nearly 50 inmates - the so-called "forever" prisoners - it has deemed too dangerous to release. Obama has promised an accelerated process of parole-style "periodic reviews" to determine whether they still pose security risks.
In December, Congress eased some restrictions on prisoner transfers. Sloan said "the next big step would be removing the ban on bringing people to the United States for detention and trial."
Lawmakers, however, have made clear they would strongly resist such a change.
Opened by President George W. Bush in 2002 to hold terrorism suspects rounded up overseas after the September 11, 2001, attacks, Guantanamo became a symbol of the excesses of his "war on terror."
Sloan was appointed in July after Guantanamo was thrust back into the spotlight by a hunger strike and the military's decision to force-feed prisoners to keep them alive.
(Editing by Warren Strobel and Diane Craft)