Report

Obama’s Plan to Bring Guantanamo Detainees to U.S. Could Drop Bombshell Into 2016 Race

The long-awaited blueprint for closing the military prison in Cuba and opening a ‘Gitmo North’ is a boon for GOP candidates but a pain for the Democrats.

epa05097663 Supporters and members of the activist group 'The World Can't Wait' hold a rally and march asking for President Obama to close the U.S. detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba across from the White House in Washington, DC, USA, 11 January 2016. The Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp opened 14 years ago today.  EPA/JIM LO SCALZO
epa05097663 Supporters and members of the activist group 'The World Can't Wait' hold a rally and march asking for President Obama to close the U.S. detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba across from the White House in Washington, DC, USA, 11 January 2016. The Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp opened 14 years ago today. EPA/JIM LO SCALZO

As a senator, Hillary Clinton favored closing Guantanamo Bay and bringing its detainees to American soil before abruptly turning against the idea. As a candidate, she’s been trying to dodge the question of whether to bring those prisoners to the United States, but President Barack Obama is about to force her to take a stand.

The White House is facing a congressionally-mandated Feb. 23 deadline for releasing its long-awaited plan for shuttering the U.S. military prison. If the administration complies, the plan — expected to propose alternative options in three states, including South Carolina  — will come out just three days after the Republican primary there and less than a week before the Democratic one. Clinton would have to say whether she supports a plan that is certain to be deeply unpopular in the Palmetto State right before Democratic voters there cast their ballots.

The plan won’t simply cause headaches for Clinton in South Carolina. Administration officials say the president’s proposal will likely identify potential locations for holding detainees in Colorado and Kansas as well. With broad “not in my backyard” opposition from voters, lawmakers, and officials in all three states, the plan would hand Republicans what they see as a winning issue, and the Democrats a political grenade, right before the pivotal Super Tuesday primaries.

Republicans are already jumping into the fray. A number of the GOP presidential candidates have trumpeted their opposition to closing Guantanamo, and even pledged a return to torture tactics associated with earlier, darker days at the military prison and in the U.S. “war on terror.”

In a presidential debate last month, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, whose campaign strategy reportedly hinges on a win in South Carolina, tellingly brought up Guantanamo several times.

“And if we capture any of these ISIS killers alive, they are going to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and we’re going to find out everything they know, because when I’m president, unlike Barack Obama, we will keep this country safe,” he said.

Rubio has leveraged the issue, among others, into key endorsements from Republican Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado, and more recently, Sen. Tim Scott and Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina, where Rubio’s currently polling a close third to Texas Sen. Ted Cruz three days ahead of the primary. Scott, the only black Republican in the Senate, is seen as safe for reelection, and Haley, who gave the Republican rebuttal to Obama’s last State of the Union address, is often discussed as a potential vice presidential pick. They’re all outspoken opponents of any plans to bring detainees to the U.S., whether to a federal “supermax” or state prison in Colorado, or the naval brig in Charleston, S.C. In Kansas, where Republican Sen. Jerry Moran is up for reelection, fellow Republican Sen. Pat Roberts put a hold on Obama’s nominee for Army secretary, Eric Fanning, in part over the administration’s consideration of the military prison at Ft. Leavenworth in his state as a potential new home for the Guantanamo detainees.

Scott said Rubio’s “strong stand” on Guantanamo was one of his main factors for his endorsement. “The president’s hopes of moving Guantanamo to South Carolina or another domestic location are certainly on the mind of many South Carolina primary voters,” Scott told Foreign Policy from the campaign trail in South Carolina with Rubio. “Our voters want to see a consistent record of opposing this plan, from public statements to their voting record.”

Starting as early as last fall, the Republican National Committee ran ads in South Carolina, Colorado, Kansas and surrounding states to tie Clinton to the closure plan and Obama’s deeply personal campaign promise and thus far futile, seven-year-long effort to close Guantanamo.

“The American people strongly oppose any proposal to bring dangerous terrorists detainees onto U.S. soil and we plan to hold Democrat politicians like Hillary Clinton who support this terrible idea accountable,” RNC spokesman Ryan Mahoney told Foreign Policy.

The Democratic National Committee did not respond to requests for comment.

Gardner and other Republican opponents of closing the prison point to statements from administration officials like Attorney General Loretta Lynch, Defense Secretary Ash Carter, and most recently, and Lt. Gen. William Mayville Jr., the director of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that current law bars transfers to the U.S. That means, in their view, that Obama’s plan would be illegal.

Gardner told Foreign Policy voters in Colorado say they’re concerned about the administration’s plan to potentially transfer detainees there. “Given that President Obama has no legal basis to transfer Guantanamo detainees to Colorado or anywhere else on U.S. soil, I’m certain that voters in Colorado and nationally are looking toward leaders, like Marco Rubio, who are outspoken in their opposition and question the legality of a potential transfer,” Gardner said.

The administration itself has been cagey about whether they will adhere to the Feb. 23 deadline, given the political outcry already, though they’ve repeatedly delayed the plan. Both the National Security Council and Pentagon declined to say what they consider the deadline to be.

“We are taking all practical steps to reduce the detainee population at Guantanamo and to close the detention facility in a responsible manner that protects our national security,” a senior administration official told Foreign Policy. “We will continue to transfer and prosecute detainees, and will work with Congress to remove unwarranted restrictions that hinder the closure of the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay. This has always been the president’s goal and remains a high priority.”

The future of Guantanamo Bay is a particularly combustible issue for Clinton that potentially leaves her trapped between Democrats opposed to the plan and the president’s last, best chance to close Guantanamo.

As a senator in June of 2007 — some five months after she’d already announced her first presidential candidacy — Clinton co-sponsored legislation to require Obama to close Guantanamo and transfer all detainees who couldn’t be moved or tried elsewhere to a military or civilian detention facility in the U.S. for trial or indefinite detention. But just over a month later, she voted for an amendment that stated the U.S. should bar transferring the detainees to American soil, and it passed 94 to 3. Her now rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, was one of those three nays (Obama, then an Illinois senator, didn’t vote.).

Still, as secretary of state, she was a staunch advocate for the president’s push to close Guantanamo, and on her way out of his State Department in January of 2013, Clinton sent him a confidential memo, urging him to take more aggressive steps. She didn’t directly advocate for bringing remaining detainees to the U.S. for long-term detention, but did endorse the idea of putting them on trial in the U.S. The existence of the memo was first reported by the Huffington Post, which obtained it through a Freedom of Information Act Request.

The Clinton campaign declined FP’s request for comment on whether she currently supports transferring Guantanamo detainees to the U.S. But when asked at a South Carolina town hall last week whether she supports moving them to the state, Clinton said she doesn’t have a response until she sees the details of Obama’s plan.

“The President has to decide what he thinks should be done,” she said, in comments highlighted by the RNC.  “He hasn’t yet, so I don’t have a response. I want to see what he’s going to recommend. And I don’t know what he’s going to recommend, so I don’t want to prejudge what he’s going to say.”

Sanders is clear in his position that Guantanamo should be closed, though he has voted against giving Obama funding to do so. In the two years Sanders and Clinton shared in the Senate, they voted together 93 percent of the time, according to a New York Times analysis. Of the 31 times they disagreed, most were on national security and foreign policy, including the 2007 Guantanamo vote.

Sanders’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment on his current position on bringing detainees to the U.S.

But a rekindled battle between Congress and the Obama White House over Guantanamo will be bad for Sanders, too, and also threatens other Democratic candidates further down the ticket. Colorado Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet is one of the most vulnerable Democrats fighting to hold on to his seat. Any proposal to move Guantanamo detainees to his state is sure to cause him political difficulties in what is expected to be a tight race, though the Republican field to replace him remains crowded.

Bennet spokeswoman Erin McCann told Foreign Policy the senator has already said moving detainees to Colorado — or anywhere in the U.S. — is a bad idea.  “Congress has specifically prohibited the President from transferring prisoners from Guantanamo to American soil,” she said. “The President signed that very measure into law just months ago.  Furthermore, the Administration has not justified housing military prisoners anywhere but at a military facility, has not presented Congress with a coherent plan, and has not worked with local communities in any productive way.”

Photo Credit: Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA 

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