Obama Releases Plan to Close Guantanamo

Obama outlines a long-awaited plan to close the military prison in Cuba, and lawmakers are already vowing 'not in my backyard.'

This photo made during an escorted visit and reviewed by the US military shows an US Army soldier walking at unused common detainee space in "Camp 6" detention facility at the US Naval Station in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, April 8, 2014.   AFP PHOTO/MLADEN ANTONOV        (Photo credit should read MLADEN ANTONOV/AFP/Getty Images)
This photo made during an escorted visit and reviewed by the US military shows an US Army soldier walking at unused common detainee space in "Camp 6" detention facility at the US Naval Station in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, April 8, 2014. AFP PHOTO/MLADEN ANTONOV (Photo credit should read MLADEN ANTONOV/AFP/Getty Images)

This story was updated at 1:19 p.m. EST with Obama’s comments and details of the Guantanamo closure plan.

In a move sure to shake up the 2016 presidential race and spark a heated battle with Congress, the Obama administration on Tuesday released its plan to close the U.S. military detention facility at Guantanamo Bay and transfer dozens of the remaining detainees to a secure facility on American soil.

For all the hype and early cries of “not in my backyard,” the plan offered no surprises. Obama administration officials have for years outlined their strategy for closing the prison: transfer all the detainees who can be safely moved to third-party countries; charge as many detainees as can be charged through the military justice system; and move those who remain — the “irreducible minimum,” or “worst of the worst,” depending on your side of the aisle — to a facility in the U.S. for indefinite detention as enemy combatants. Future detainees, such as those taken in the fight against ISIS, could possibly be tried in U.S. federal courts.

Unveiling the plan at the White House, President Barack Obama said closing the facility would remove a stain on America’s image, deprive terror groups of a recruiting tool, and — according to a Pentagon estimate — save taxpayers up to $85 million a year.

The White House has left open the possibility that Obama could take executive action to shut down Guantanamo if Congress remains intransigent, but the president made no such threat in his remarks Tuesday.

It’s time for the United States to close this “chapter in our history” before another president inherits the issue, he said.

“Our closest allies raise it with me continually. They often raise specific cases of detainees repeatedly. I don’t want to pass this problem onto the next president, whoever it is,” Obama said. “And if as a nation, we don’t deal with this now, when will we deal with it?”

Even before the president’s announcement, Republican lawmakers slammed the White House for giving them what they asked for, when they asked for it: a closure plan, due on Feb. 23.

“Congress passed a law in November explicitly barring the transfer of Guantanamo prisoners to domestic soil,” Republican Sens. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), and Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), said in a statement on Monday, hours before the White House released the plan. “With ever-growing threats abroad and our increased efforts to combat ISIS, we need a place to house these terrorists, and that place is not in our communities, nor back on the battlefield.”

Why would the White House release the powder-keg plan now, amid key early primary states and sparring over a Supreme Court justice nominee? That same law the senators referenced — the annual defense authorization act, which Obama signed in late November after first vetoing the bill — mandates that in 90 days from enactment, on Feb. 23, the secretary of defense, attorney general, and director of national intelligence are required to submit to congressional defense committees “the details of a comprehensive strategy for the detention of current and future individuals captured and held” as “war on terror” detainees.

Guantanamo currently holds 91 detainees, with 35 approved for transfer to other countries. Under the administration’s plan, those who cannot be moved to other countries would either be transferred to maximum-security prisons in the continental United States or prosecuted.

Tellingly, Scott, Roberts, and Gardner all represent states where the Defense Department has conducted site surveys to determine potential locations and costs for housing Guantanamo detainees in the U.S. Scott is up for reelection, and all three senators have endorsed fellow Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida for the Republican nomination. Rubio has been outspoken that the current population at Guantanamo, as well as future terrorism suspects, should be kept at the facility in Cuba.

The plan and its timing promises to shakeup the 2016 election, as it drops just days before the Democratic primary in South Carolina. Given sizable opposition from state officials, lawmakers and voters to the mere concept of bringing detainees to the U.S. (regardless of where, whether they’ve ever been charged with any crime, or the fact that terrorists are already held in the U.S.), the Republicans have already begun this cycle to use Guantanamo to hit Democrats. And even key Democrats such as former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have actively avoided the question of bringing detainees to U.S. soil.

The Obama administration has been working on the closure plan since at least last June, but the Pentagon has repeatedly delayed its delivery to Congress. First, it was pushed back to allow the Defense Department to survey potential sites, and then again when the plan was determined to be too costly, undermining the White House’s argument that closing Guantanamo would save money. As recently as last week, officials wouldn’t even say when they considered the deadline to be.

Obama acknowledged the strong opposition in Congress to moving some detainees to the U.S. mainland.

“I want to say I am very clear-eyed about the hurdles to finally closing Guantanamo. The politics of this are tough,” he said.

Obama’s proposal triggered criticism not just from the political right but also human rights groups, with Amnesty International calling the proposal “reckless” for allowing detainees to remain behind bars indefinitely without charge.

“The possibility of a new, parallel system of lifelong incarceration inside the United States without charge would set a dangerous precedent. If successfully mounted, it would be a devastating blow to basic principles of criminal justice,” said Naureen Shah, director of Amnesty International USA’s Security and Human Rights Program.

Lawmakers, for their part, are trying to have it both ways. They’ve pushed the Obama administration for a plan that includes potential alternative sites, but they’ve consistently extended an explicit ban on bringing the detainees to American soil, year after year, even as the administration has been clear an “irreducible minimum” of detainees would need to be moved to the U.S. because they could not safely be moved anywhere else. They’ve demanded costs be included in the plan, though they’ve also barred the administration from spending any money to construct or modify — or plan to construct or modify — new or existing facilities in the U.S. The White House, for its part, says the Pentagon’s more recent surveys of military, federal and state prisons in Colorado, South Carolina and Kansas didn’t violate that law.

“What we received today is a vague menu of options, not a credible plan for closing Guantanamo, let alone a coherent policy to deal with future terrorist detainees,” said Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.), who has supported closing the detention center.

As Obama warned in November in his signing statement accompanying the authorization act, lawmakers may have left him little choice but executive action if he wishes to accomplish his campaign promise of closing the prison before he leaves office. Some former administration legal advisers have laid out the case for such a step. In response to the mere threat of executive action, lawmakers have vowed to take the president to court to block any unilateral move.

FP reporter Dan De Luce contributed to this article

Photo Credit: Mladen Antonov/AFP/Getty Images



Molly O’Toole is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, covering immigration, refugees, and national security. She was FP’s sole 2016 presidential campaign reporter, on the trail from New Hampshire to Nevada. Previously, she covered the politics of national security for Atlantic Media’s Defense One, where she reported from Congress, the White House, the Pentagon, and the State Department. Before that, she was a news editor at the Huffington Post. Molly has also reported on national and international politics for Reuters, the Nation, The Associated Press, and Newsweek International, among others, from Washington, New York, Mexico City, and London. She received her dual master’s degree in journalism and international relations from New York University and her bachelor’s from Cornell University and in 2016 was a grant recipient of the International Women’s Media Foundation. She will always be a Californian. @mollymotoole

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