Guantanamo Prison Closing Plan Means New Obama-Congress Battle

Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base
The sun rises over the Camp Delta detention center at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Photographer: Michelle Shepard/Pool via Bloomberg

President Barack Obama’s plan to close the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, would bring as many as 64 of the 116 current detainees -- those deemed too dangerous to transfer elsewhere -- to the U.S. for federal prosecution or continued military detention.

The others would be transferred home or to third countries under terms intended to assure that they won’t threaten the U.S.

The plan, outlined Saturday by Lisa Monaco, Obama’s adviser for homeland security and counterterrorism, would require Congress to change the law that now prohibits the movement of the detainees to the U.S., setting up a fight with many Republican lawmakers who have said they oppose shutting down the detention center.

Representative Michael McCaul of Texas, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, on Saturday called Obama’s approach a “reckless and dangerous policy.”

The Obama administration plans to win support from Congress in part by presenting the cost of the current arrangement -- about $3 million a year per detainee -- as a waste of money that could be better used for other national security priorities.

The number of detainees is “getting so low that it really doesn’t make any fiscal sense to keep this hugely expensive facility open in Cuba,” Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson said Friday at the Aspen Security Forum in Aspen, Colorado.

Obama has sought to close the prison since coming to office in 2009, and is redoubling that effort.

‘Very Committed’

“I know from numerous conversations that this president is very committed to closing Guantanamo Bay, and does not want to leave this to his successor,” said Johnson, who was involved in Obama’s earlier efforts to close the facility when he was general counsel at the Defense Department.

Addressing the same group, Monaco provided some details behind the new effort, saying that the administration is seeking to arrange the transfer to other countries of about 52 detainees deemed to pose little future threat.

“That doesn’t mean just unlocking the door and having someone go willy-nilly to another country,” she said. “It means a painstaking establishment of security protocols that would govern the transfer of that individual.”

In June, six Yemeni prisoners were transferred to Oman from Guantanamo Bay. Oman took another four Yemenis in January, and at that time a prisoner was sent to Estonia.

There may be others among the current detainees who could be transferred after further evaluation, Monaco said. As a result of transfers, the current detainee population is down from 242 when Obama took office, she said.

The remaining prisoners, including 10 facing military commissions, would move to the U.S. to face criminal trials or continued military detention, she said.

‘Whittle Down’

“We are going to whittle down this group to what I refer to as the irreducible minimum, who would have to be brought here to a secure location, held under the laws of war, continue under military detention, and that’s the only way we’re going to be able to close Guantanamo,” she said.

Congress has passed legislation restricting Obama’s ability to close the prison, and such language is included in a defense policy bill being hashed out in a House-Senate conference committee. Obama’s advisers have encouraged him to veto H.R. 1735, which reflects congressional divisions over Guantanamo.

The House adopted an amendment in its version that would further restrict the ability to relocate Guantanamo Bay prisoners, including preventing transfers to strife-torn Yemen, the home country of many of the remaining detainees. The Senate’s bill would require the administration to submit a plan to close the detention center and then provide for Congress to vote on that proposal.

Appropriate Conditions

Senator John McCain of Arizona, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a former prisoner of war in Vietnam, told the forum that he has long favored closing Guantanamo Bay under appropriate conditions. He said he discussed the issue recently with Monaco and Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, and is waiting for Obama’s formal proposal.

“I hope they will come up with a plan I can sell to my colleagues,” McCain said at the forum.

McCain also noted the high cost per prisoner, which he said compared with about $70,000 a head in a maximum security U.S. prison. “I am trying to appeal at least to my fiscal conservative friends that maybe you ought to save the taxpayers” money, he said.

Recidivism Risk

There are legal issues that complicate holding military detainees in civilian prisons, though McCain said that issue could be resolved by declaring a portion of a supermax prison as under Defense Department authority.

Opponents say their objections include the risk that former fighters, once released, will pose a threat to the U.S. while holding others in the U.S. risks drawing terrorist attacks to the homeland.

The remaining detainees are “the worst of the worst, and we shouldn’t be letting any of them out to roam around freely and then conduct terrorist attacks,” McCaul said.

However, James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, told the forum Friday that the recidivism rate is down sharply from earlier years. The Bush administration transferred more than 500 detainees home or to third countries.

“A concern is a return to the battlefield and the overall recidivist rate is running just about 30 percent,” he said, counting the Bush administration transfers. “But since 2009, using the vetting system we’ve used, the recidivist rate is just under 6 percent, so I think doing this has worked.”

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