The Cable

McCain Dashes Obama’s Plan to Close Guantánamo

The Obama administration was relying on McCain to get Republicans to loosen -- not tighten -- restrictions on detainee transfers.

Senator Kelly Ayotte(L) R-NH listens while Senator John McCain (R-AZ) speaks during a press conference on Capitol hill January 13, 2015 in Washington, DC. McCain and others gathered to speak about legislation being introduced to limit the Obama administration's ability to release detainees from Guantanamo Bay. AFP PHOTO/BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

A key Republican ally in the White House’s battle to close the Guantánamo Bay detention facility reversed course Tuesday, delivering a potentially lethal blow to President Barack Obama’s hopes to shutter the controversial prison before he leaves office.

Just last month, Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) promised to help Obama close the detention center where terrorism suspects have been held for years without being charged. But on Tuesday, McCain and three other Republican colleagues introduced plans to sharply restrict the removal or transfer of detainees from the facility, which has served as a long-standing target of worldwide criticism.

Specifically, the proposal would prohibit the transfer of detainees to the United States and Yemen. The majority of the 127 detainees still being held — down from a high of about 680 — are from Yemen. But officials fear detainees who are released in Yemen, where al Qaeda commands a strong presence, could easily be lured into jihad.

“We know for a fact that … those who have been released have re-entered the fight and usually at a higher level because it’s a badge of honor to have been an inmate at Guantánamo Bay,” McCain said. He was flanked by Sens. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), Richard Burr (R-N.C.), and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).

A senior State Department official noted on Wednesday that after Obama took office, the recidivism rate of released prisoners dropped significantly from 19 percent “confirmed of reengaging” to 6.8 percent.

The Obama administration had relied on McCain to aid in the president’s campaign promise to close Guantánamo, hoping he would convince his fellow Republicans to loosen — not tighten — restrictions on detainee transfers.

McCain, a former prisoner of war who now chairs the Senate committee that oversees the Pentagon’s detainee policy, has long advocated for the closure of the facility. And for months, Democratic administration officials repeatedly cited supportive comments by McCain as evidence that they could work with Congress to close the detention center.

Cliff Sloan, Obama’s former envoy for closing Guantánamo, as recently as last month told Foreign Policy that “you’re going to see a real effort to work with Congress and remove the restrictions in a common-sense manner.”

But the legislation filed Tuesday would keep restrictions in place that the White House desperately needed to be lifted. It also imposes additional restrictions on moving detainees to foreign countries and, in effect, would grind the already slow pace of those transfers to a halt.

“This is an unfortunate and unhelpful proposal,” retired Marine Maj. Gen. Michael Lehnert, the first commander at Guantánamo Bay, who supports shuttering the facility, said in a statement.

At the moment, 59 out of the prison’s 127 inmates are cleared for transfer and do not pose a significant threat to the United States, according to an internal assessment by six departments and agencies including the CIA, Pentagon, Justice Department, and State Department. That number was as high as 70 in mid-November, before the administration renewed its push to empty the facility.

The administration is seeking to at least whittle down the detainee population to below 100. At that point, the administration hopes that the cost per prisoner at Guantánamo will become so exorbitant that lawmakers will acknowledge the absurdity of keeping the prison open.

That strategy now appears highly unlikely.

As it seeks to dramatically slow the transfer of the 59 detainees who have already been cleared, the new plan also would ban moving the detainees who are considered the most dangerous to so-called Supermax prisons in the United States while they await trial. Sloan, the former Guantánamo czar, wrote last week that the detention center will never close unless that ban is lifted.

Republicans say the recent spate of transfers of detainees to other nations U.S. puts security at risk.

“This legislation would prevent this administration from transferring the most dangerous detainees to other countries,” said Ayotte, who is leading the new GOP effort. “The administration seems to be more interested in emptying and closing Guantánamo rather than protecting the national security interests of the United States and the lives of Americans.”

McCain’s pivot on Guantánamo is his latest national security dispute — including over the withdrawal of troops from Iraq and U.S. intervention in Syria — with the White House.

In December, McCain told CNN he would help Obama lift the ban on sending prisoners to U.S. prisons if the right plan is proposed. “I am prepared to and I think it can be done,” he said. Earlier, in a joint 2013 statement with Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and White House chief of staff Denis McDonough, McCain asserted “that it is in our national interest to end detention at Guantánamo, with a safe and orderly transition of the detainees to other locations.”

McCain told Foreign Policy on Tuesday that he still might reject the new Republican plan — but only if the Obama administration presents its own comprehensive solution on how to safely close the facility.

“I’ve been an ally [to the administration] for six years,” McCain said. “I’ve said, ‘Give us a plan.’ They have no plan, and as soon as they come forward with a plan, we will drop this issue.”

An administration official denied that the executive branch has failed to engage with McCain, and vowed to continue working with him in the coming weeks.

“We’d still very much like to work with Congress to ensure that we can close the detention facility because it is not in our national security interest to have it open,” said the official. “We hope that Senator McCain can be a part of that.”

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