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Five More Guantanamo Transfers as Official in Charge Steps Down

Clifford Sloan, the Special Envoy for Guantanamo Closure, leaves his position at the State Department as five more detainees are transferred.
Image: Guantanamo
A U.S. trooper keeps watch from a guard tower at the detention compound at Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base, Cuba, in this Dec. 7, 2006 file photo, reviewed by a U.S. Dept of Defense official. Brennan Linsley / AP file

Five more detainees were released from Guantanamo Bay after more than a decade in detention, the Defense Department announced on Tuesday, bringing the total number of those held at the baseto 127. The detainees were moved to Kazakhstan from the facility on Cuba.

The administration has released 111 detainees since President Barack Obama took office — 28 of them just this year. Congress has already been alerted that more will be transferred in the coming weeks; 59 are already approved for release. At its peak, the facility housed over 700 detainees.

Clifford Sloan, the State Department's Special Envoy for Guantanamo Closure, told NBC News the path to the facility's ultimate closure a "clear and straightforward" one.

President Barack Obama has called for a stepped-up push to shutter the detention center where most prisoners have been held without being charged or tried. Congress, meanwhile, has passed legislation blocking detainees from coming to the U.S. for detention or trial.

After a year and a half on the job — the amount of time he signed up for when he agreed to take the position — Sloan is leaving at the end of the year to go back to his previous job at a law firm.

Guantanamo Bay Flag Through Barbed Wire
Inside the prison camps at Guantanamo Bay.Shawna Thomas / NBC News

His staffers say that his leadership has been instrumental in the accelerated pace detainees have been resettled in the last months of this year. Even at the end of his term at the State Department, Sloan made it clear that he does not want to talk about Gitmo’s past, only the way forward.

“I don’t want to re-litigate the old battles ... I can see nothing less productive than that,” he said.

Sloan, who was brought in to revive the office in charge of making deals with other countries to move the detainees, chose his words carefully and always brought the conversation back to his and President Barack Obama’s stated goal of closing Guantanamo.

"The clear path is a two-step process, which is first transfer everybody that can be transferred. Get the number down to a very small core and at that point, the cost — which is wildly expensive now — will go through the roof even more dramatically, and it will not make sense to continue to have this detention facility, costing many hundreds of millions of dollars a year, many millions of dollars a year per detainee, when there are very sound alternatives available,” Sloan said.

In an interview with CNN this month, the president said housing each detainee costs "millions" per year.

Sloan said his wife and children have been supportive of the “very challenging” job he’s undertaken. "At the same time that it’s been intense and demanding, it’s been very satisfying because it is such an important issue," he said. "We’re talking about individuals that are at the Guantanamo facility and it’s very satisfying when we can make progress."

Earlier this year, U.S. Rep. Buck McKeon, a Republican from California and the outgoing chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, criticized the pace of the transfers and called on Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel to halt them. McKeon called the pace "ever-increasing" and warned that “there are public reports that detainees are specifically rejoining the fight alongside ISIL,” referring to another name by which the Islamist terror group ISIS is known.

Clifford Sloan, Special Envoy for Guantanamo Closure, and President Obama.
Clifford Sloan, Special Envoy for Guantanamo Closure, and President Obama.White House/Pete Souza

One of the few topics that raise Sloan's ire is the accusation that released Guantanamo detainees are joining up with the extremist fighters in Iraq and Syria. He disputes the often-quoted figure that about 30 percent of those released since 2002 have returned in some form to the battlefield.

Sloan said the 30 percent figure is the combination of those who are confirmed and those only suspected of returning to hostile activities. And, he said, the percentage of those confirmed to have returned to the fight is much lower. “Even among those who are confirmed, many of those have been killed or captured,” Sloan said.

United States and allies keep a close eye on those who are released, Sloan said. When asked about a former detainee, Ibrahim al-Rubaysh, who was transferred in 2006 and just this month was named to the State Department’s list of Specially Designated Global Terrorists, he stresses that al-Rubaysh was released under the previous administration, and that the standards used to determine release have since been strengthened.

"I do think that the approval process in 2009 was a very rigorous process and it has stood the test of time," he said. "The figures on those who went through that process is very low."

Sloan declined to say whether Secretary of State John Kerry asked him to stay in the position longer. Neither the White House nor the State Department have announced who will take over the role.

However, he said that he’s confident that the pace of transfers will continue to the point that the facility will be ready to be closed before the end of Obama's term.

"Nobody should underestimate for a second President Obama’s intense commitment to close Guantanamo," he said. "And he does not want to pass this on to the next president."

NBC News' Abigail Williams and Carrie Dann, and The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report