White House, Ash Carter Drafting a Guantanamo Closure Plan for Congress, McCain Says

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and a staff member walk on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Feb. 25, 2015.

Lauren Victoria Burke/AP

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Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and a staff member walk on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Feb. 25, 2015.

Sen. John McCain says Defense Secretary Ash Carter and White House counterterrorism official Lisa Monaco are working on a plan to close the prison, while he works for the Senate’s approval.

This story has been updated.

After what he claims has been years of silence from the White House on Guantanamo, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said Thursday that senior Obama administration officials finally are drafting a plan for closing the facility to be submitted to lawmakers.

McCain spoke with President Barack Obama three weeks ago about closing the military prison and shortly after received two high-profile visitors in his office: Defense Secretary Ash Carter and Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Lisa Monaco.

McCain outlined to them a plan for closing the facility that he thought could pass the Republican-majority Congress, and Carter and Monaco told him they were working up a draft to be submitted to lawmakers, the Arizona Republican told Defense One Thursday.

“Ash Carter and Lisa Monaco told me that they are working on a plan,” McCain said. “My indication was when they were both sitting in the couch in my office that they were together on this and they were going to come up with a plan … they wouldn’t have come over if they weren’t [going to send it to Congress].”

Encouraged by the conversations, three weeks ago the Senate Armed Services Committee chairman brokered a compromise with his Democratic colleagues on the committee to include language in the annual defense authorization bill, or NDAA, stating Congress would grant the president the authority to close the military prison if he submitted a plan to do so that was then approved by lawmakers.

This week outside of closed doors and on the Senate floor, McCain is pushing for that bill’s passage, but the White House has threatened to veto it in part due to added provisions about the detention facility Obama officials say are too restrictive.

On Tuesday, the administration reiterated its veto threat in a statement rejecting McCain’s requirement for a closure plan as “unnecessary and overly restrictive.” The administration said if the president does not submit a plan or if it fails to pass, much of the rest of the bill extends current restrictions on the president’s ability to close the facility and adds new ones. Defense Department officials declined to comment on any pending plan for Guantanamo closure. The National Security Council declined to comment on the potential for a specific plan as well.

“We have repeatedly called upon the Congress to work with us to close the detention facility at Guantanamo once and for all,” NSC spokesman Ned Price said. “Congress should remove unwarranted and burdensome restrictions - and certainly not impose new ones - that curtail the executive branch’s options for managing the detainee population.”

McCain said, “I’m sure that they would rather not have had some of that [language in the defense bill], and I’m sure they would’ve rather not had the approval of Congress but that’s the way we worked it in the committee. What they said was they would work on a plan to submit to us. Whether they agree with what we did on the NDAA or not, that’s another issue altogether.”

The senator’s consistent complaint — along with Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.— has been that Obama has not presented a plan for closing the facility. McCain described the outlines discussed with Carter and Monaco as: requiring the submission of a plan, the identification of an alternative site in the U.S. to house detainees and legal waivers on how they would be held there — “because you know when they’re on American soil there has to be changes in that law,” he noted — and the approval of Congress.

The same potential alternative sites have been discussed for years, including military facilities at Fort Leavenworth, in Kansas, and the Navy brig in Charleston, S.C., or a civilian facility such as the federal “supermax” facility, in Colorado. McCain said Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, the chamber’s No. 2-ranking Democrat, has reiterated that a prison in his state could be used and his constituents would support it. But, the chairman emphasized, the facility would need to be run by the Department of Defense.

The deal making described by McCain comes amid renewed tension surrounding the facility. Last year, the Obama administration sped up transfers from the prison in a race to empty it as much as possible before the incoming Republican-led Congress could pass legislation that would effectively kill the president’s promise to close the facility. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., in a move that squeezes the administration for time, says he wants to get the behemoth, must-pass defense bill done by next week.

Meanwhile, a roughly five-month moratorium on detainee transfers may end within the next few weeks. The administration is expected to release up to 10 detainees, a senior defense official told Defense One Wednesday. By law, the White House is required to give lawmakers 30 days notice before any new detainee transfers, but McCain said the administration has not notified Congress of any plans.

“Well they’ve broken the law before — they broke the law when they exchanged five people for Bowe Bergdahl,” McCain said of the Army sergeant freed from captivity last year as part of a prisoner swap. The senator felt additional transfers, however, would not complicate efforts to close the facility unless the administration again failed to give Congress the legally required 30 days notice.

The White House declined to comment on whether a notification is imminent.

“To the greatest extent possible and consistent with our national security interests, we will continue to repatriate or resettle detainees eligible for transfer,” Price said. “I do not have a timeline on when particular detainees will be transferred from Guantanamo. However, the administration is committed to reducing the detainee population and to closing the detention facility responsibly.”

If the administration submitted a closure plan to Congress, it’s unclear that it would pass. Senate Armed Services Committee Ranking Member Jack Reed, D-R.I., and others favor the compromise language on Guantanamo, but several committee Republicans voted against the provision. And it is likely to face opposition in the full Senate and the House, which already passed more restrictive Guantanamo rules than what’s proposed in the Senate’s version.

On Thursday, Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., introduced an amendment to the NDAA that would block any transfer of Guantanamo detainees to the United States. “Our nation is a war, and by working to close Gitmo, the president is looking to end one of our greatest resources for collecting intelligence of the enemy,” Inhofe said in a statement. “In order to empty out the facility, the president is looking to either ship these terrorists across the globe while we have service members serving in harm’s way, or he wants them detained on U.S. soil.”

Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., reiterated her opposition on Thursday to McCain’s provision and any efforts to close the facility. “I voted against it,” she said.

McCain argued “most Republicans” would be on board with a plan like the one he discussed with Carter and Monaco, because of the astronomical costs of Guantanamo — $3 million a year to detain someone in Cuba, versus some $70,000 at a secure U.S. facility — and the plan’s insurance that detainees “would still be treated as terrorists when they’re on American soil.”

McCain said the administration did not give him a timeline for the plan. He cautioned, “I’m not sure this bill’s gonna be signed by the president.”

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