Pentagon Team Heads to Charleston to Assess Guantanamo Alternative
Amid a last push to close the detention facility in Cuba, the Obama administration is giving the naval brig in South Carolina a fresh look.
A group of about 10 Defense Department officials will survey the Consolidated Naval Brig in Charleston, S.C., on Wednesday and Thursday to determine whether it could hold detainees as an alternative to the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
"These site surveys are necessary to determine potential locations for detaining a limited number of individuals in the United States, and to assess the costs associated with doing so," Defense Department spokesman Cmdr. Gary Ross told Defense One in a statement late Tuesday. "Prudent planning and site visits are necessary in order to assess all potential locations and costs associated with any potential options."
Ross said a "broad list" of civilian and military sites may be looked at to determine whether they can hold law-of-war detainees humanely and securely. "Only those locations that can hold detainees at a maximum security level will be considered," he said, adding that the list is "informed by past assessment efforts."
Pentagon officials recently visited Kansas’s Fort Leavenworth as part of a last push to achieve President Obama’s long-held goal of closing Guantanamo. Officials say the site visits are intended to establish a baseline and do not mean that either Leavenworth or the Charleston brig have been chosen. Both have been considered for years as potential locations for holding Guantanamo detainees if the facility in Cuba were to be closed. But cries of "not in my backyard" from lawmakers and state officials doomed early efforts to close the prison by the Obama administration and its allies on the issue, such as Republican Sens. John McCain, Ariz.; and Lindsey Graham, S.C.
These sites have been studied as potential Guantanamo alternatives. The administration has ruled out Thomson.
As part of its latest move to close Guantanamo, the Obama administration has been working for months to draft a plan that it will soon send to Congress. McCain has been lobbying fellow lawmakers to support a provision in the annual defense authorization bill that would end the ban on transferring detainees to the U.S., if lawmakers approve the plan. The Senate Armed Services Committee chairman has pushed the administration to include such details as where detainees could be housed and at what cost. The draft is expected to be submitted soon after Congress returns to Washington next week.
But that lobbying effort doesn't appear to be going so well. Fellow Republicans Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott have already stated their opposition to using the prisons in their states to hold Guantanamo transfers. And even Graham, who wants to close the offshore prison, balks at bringing the prisoners to his state.
"If true, I would not support moving Guantanamo Bay detainees to Charleston," Graham recently said in a statement to Defense One. "If the detainees need to be moved, they must be moved to a maximum security location in a remote area far from heavily populated areas with vital infrastructure. Charleston does not meet that criteria."
Graham’s office said he hasn’t named an alternative.
Guantanamo currently holds 116 detainees, of which 52 have been cleared for transfer to third-party countries. The Obama administration hopes to move the rest to the United States. Deputy National Security Advisor Lisa Monaco has called this group the "irreducible minimum."
Ross said that convicted terrorists, such as those involved in the 9/11 attacks and 1993 World Trade Center bombing, have been held in the U.S. for years without incident, and that adding the Guantanamo bunch "will not risk the wellbeing of nearby residents."
Defense Secretary Ash Carter reiterated on Tuesday that while he supports the president’s efforts to close Guantanamo, a certain number of the detainees — though never charged — are too dangerous to be moved elsewhere. He also added he didn’t believe the Naval base that houses the prison would be handed back to Cuba if it were closed. Transfers of detainees to other countries has been a point of tension between Carter and the White House.
"It ends up being part of jihadi recruiting and so forth and I would just as soon not leave that to a future president," Carter said Tuesday. "But it’s tricky to do that. The reason it’s tricky to do that is this: some of the people who are there at Guantanamo Bay have to be detained indefinitely, they just gotta be locked up. So if they’re not locked up in Guantanamo Bay they need to be locked up somewhere, so we are looking at places in the United States, prisons and other places, where they can be moved."
"Right now we’re working with Congress because they have to agree to this … to see if we can do that or not," he continued. "It would be a nice thing to do and an important thing to do, but we gotta be realistic about the people who are in Guantanamo Bay — they are there for a reason."
White House spokesman Josh Earnest declined to rule out Monday that Obama would take executive action to close the facility and move the remaining prisoners to the U.S. if Congress again blocks his attempts to close Guantanamo. He said closing the prison is in the interest of U.S. national security.
"I think it is fair to say that we have taken a number of steps to try to reduce the prison population there so we can get closer to closing the prison," Earnest said. "The president and his team are always considering a wide array of options."