Obama's Guantanamo Closing Plea Falls Short, McCain Says

President Barack Obama’s renewed call to close the Guantanamo Bay prison camp in Cuba faces long odds in Congress, where senior Republicans say the president has failed to offer a plan to transfer the detainees.

“If they presented a plan, it would be hard to turn down,” and the lack of one is “terribly frustrating,” Senator John McCain of Arizona, who has long backed the idea of closing the Navy facility, said in an interview.

McCain’s ally on the Senate Armed Services Committee, Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, said, “I don’t think we’ll ever close Guantanamo Bay until there’s a plan. That would be a site that is going to be secure and a legal system that would treat these people as terrorists, not common criminals.”

Obama’s promise during his first presidential campaign to close the prison camp foundered because of congressional opposition. He renewed his call to close the base in his State of the Union address this week.

Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, has said he’ll push this year to remove a ban on transferring detainees from the Guantanamo to the mainland U.S.

In addition to obstacles in his own chamber, Levin will face opposition from the Republican-led House when he negotiates detainee policy as part of the annual defense authorization.

‘Still Needed’

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon said in an interview that he, too, will oppose closing Guantanamo.

“At some point we ought to use it,” McKeon, a California Republican, said in an interview. “It was built for a purpose, and the purpose is still needed.”

Representative Hal Rogers, the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said it’s not reasonable to close Guantanamo this year and that he plans to continue to prevent spending that would lead to closing it. “As long as we have a need for Guantanamo, we’ll keep it open,” Rogers, a Kentucky Republican, said in an interview.

Levin said the 2014 defense authorization bill has chipped away at the opposition and helped Obama with an eventual closing.

That authorization loosened some restrictions on transferring detainees to other countries. It maintained a prohibition on moving detainees to the U.S. or building any new facilities in this country. While the current measure lets the U.S. government transfer detainees to Yemen, that country’s government has to show that it is capable of rehabilitating and prosecuting Guantanamo detainees.

‘High-Risk’ Prisoners

Levin said the transfer of detainees to Yemen doesn’t solve the problem of about 80 “high-risk” prisoners held at Guantanamo.

“These are people that can’t be transferred, they need to be tried and detained,” Levin said in an interview. “I want these people transferred here for trial and detention. I don’t have fear of trying these guys and putting them in prison.”

Levin has suggested that federal prisons in his home state of Michigan could hold some of the detainees.

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who smuggled a bomb in his underwear aboard a commercial airliner on Christmas Day in 2009, is being held on a life sentence in Michigan federal prison, Levin said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Roxana Tiron in Washington at rtiron@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Katherine Rizzo at krizzo5@bloomberg.net

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