The Pentagon is set to transfer 17 detainees from the U.S. military detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in the first weeks of the new year, which will bring the remaining total under 100.
“We continue to press forward,” a senior defense official told Defense One Friday, speaking on condition of anonymity because the transfers are pending.
The departing group will be the largest of Obama’s tenure, and will reduce the inmate population to 90, of which 31 have been cleared for transfer.
The planned moves are also a pointed New Year’s gift to a Congress that recently tried to block them with the annual defense authorization bill, which Obama signed into law.
On Friday, the president reiterated that if Congress doesn’t help close Guantanamo, he may act unilaterally to do so.
“My expectation is by early next year, we should have reduced that population below 100. And we will continue to steadily chip away at the numbers in Guantanamo,” Obama said in an end-of-the-year press conference at the White House. But, he said, “There’s going to come to a point where we have an irreducible population.”
At that stage, Obama said, he’ll present his long-awaited plan for closing the detention center. “And we will wait until Congress has definitively said no to a well-thought-out plan with numbers attached to it before we say anything definitive about my executive authority here … I’m not going to be forward-leaning on what I can do without Congress before I’ve tested what I can do with Congress.”
The president’s comments reaffirmed a New York Times report on Wednesday that Defense Secretary Ash Carter has given Congress the required 30 days’ notice of the proposed transfers, describing the 17 detainees as “low-level.”
Earlier this year, Paul Lewis, the Pentagon official charged with closing Guantanamo, said the administration was trying to break 100 by year’s end, to make the transfer of the remaining prisoners to a stateside facility more palatable to local politicians: “The smaller the number that we want to send to the states, the better.”
On Friday, Obama repeated part of his argument for closing Guantanamo: “I think we can make a very strong argument that it doesn’t make sense for us to be spending an extra $100 million, $200 million, $300 million, $500 million, a billion dollars, to have a secure setting for 50, 60, 70 people.”
Yet that came on the heels of reports that housing Guantanamo inmates on U.S. soil would be far costlier than the administration initially anticipated.
The January transfers are likely to occur before the plan is submitted to Congress, and in the wake of the Dec. 2 attacks in San Bernardino, Calif.. Obama said that only gives urgency to his push to close Guantanamo, which administration officials say is a potent recruiting tool for terrorist groups.
“How do they propagandize and convince somebody here in the United States who may not have a criminal record or a history of terrorist activity to start shooting — this is part of what they feed, this notion of a gross injustice, that America is not living up to its professed ideals. We know that,” Obama said. “We see how Guantanamo has been used to create this mythology that America is at war with Islam. And for us to close it is part of our counterterrorism strategy.”