The Obama administration is wrapping up a plan to close the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo and will soon send it to Congress, spokesman Josh Earnest said Wednesday. This marked the White House’s first public admission that it is drafting a closure plan for lawmakers despite its previous objection to doing so.
“Let me confirm for you that the administration is in fact in the final stages of drafting a plan to safely and responsibly close the prison at Guantanamo Bay and to present that plan to Congress,” Earnest said. “That has been something that our national security officials have been working on for quite some time, primarily because it is a priority of the president. He believes it is in our clear national security interest for us to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay.”
The plan is key to President Obama’s last push to make good on a campaign pledge. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and other lawmakers pivotal to the president’s effort have long called for him to submit a written plan. In May, the Senate Armed Services Committee chairman offered Obama a narrow opening: a provision in the 2016 defense authorization act that would allow him close the prison — if he submits a plan to Congress that lawmakers then approve.
Initially, the White House publicly rejected McCain’s proposal, calling it “unnecessary and overly restrictive” and adding it to the long list of things that would draw an NDAA veto. But privately, the administration dispatched Defense Secretary Ash Carter and its chief counterterrorism official, Lisa Monaco, to McCain’s office, where they told him they were working on a plan.
Now McCain is fighting hard to persuade House and Senate members — currently melding their versions of the 2016 defense authorization act — to include his provision. It’s an uphill battle; both of the initial bills contain restrictions that could effectively end Obama’s effort to close the prison, and the final bill is expected any day.
Even as Carter spoke publicly about drafting the plan, the White House had declined to acknowledge it even existed. Now, Earnest describes it as something of an olive branch. “There are a variety of reasons why we expect bipartisan support for our efforts to close the prison and not continued obstruction from Congress,” he said. “That’s why we’re continuing to work on a plan that when it’s completed, we’ll be prepared to present and share with Congress.”
A senior administration official emphasized that the overall effort to find a way to close the prison is a collaboration between the White House and Congress. “There’s some people who think McCain is saying, ‘Give us the plan, Mr. 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., or else,’ so he’s forcing us to give a plan to them, or others who think that we’re just giving them a plan to placate them or it’s just a ruse to do whatever the hell we want to do,” the official said. “It’s not like that; it’s a collaboration.”
Though McCain and others have long complained that they knew too little about the White House’s plans to close Guantanamo, the broad contours of Obama’s strategy have changed little since he took office. Earnest reviewed the outlines. First, prosecute as many detainees as possible through the military justice system. He pointed out that the 9/11 plotters and another person involved in planning the USS Cole bombing are currently going through the military commission process.
Next, transfer to third-party countries all the detainees who can’t be prosecuted but can be safely moved. Fifty-two of the remaining 116 prisoners are cleared for transfer, and more could be cleared in periodic reviews “to assess whether their continued detention remains necessary,” the spokesman said.
But Earnest didn’t speak about the last, and likely hardest, of the steps: Move the remaining “worst of the worst” to a high-security U.S. prison. This would require Congress lifting the bans on not only transfers to the U.S., but also spending any money on building a new prison or adapting an existing one. And he did not answer how the administration planned to convince skeptical lawmakers who continue to resist such a move.
But Congress can’t do much to stop the administration from continuing to empty out the prison in Cuba. Officials say several more rounds of transfers are in the pipeline, following the latest in June, when six Yemeni detainees were moved to Oman.
The transfers put Secretary Carter is a tough position. Under U.S. law, he must certify that any transfer does not pose a risk to and is in the interest of U.S. national security. It’s his name on the dotted line.
This tension was apparent in a cabinet-level principals committee meeting convened last Monday by National Security Advisor Susan Rice, the New York Times reported. The topic: how to close Guantanamo in 18 months. Carter was presented with an unsigned National Security Council memo stating he had 30 days to make decisions on new transfers. It remains unclear whether Carter accepted the deadline.
The senior administration official confirmed the meeting but declined to comment on “the internal deliberations of the principals committee.” The official denied growing friction between the White House, State Department and Pentagon on the issue. “There’s not interagency strife,” the official said.
The battle against the Islamic State is further complicating the issue. Lawmakers say — and many officials agree — that any plan to close Guantanamo must say how future prisoners will be interrogated and detained. The U.S. military is currently holding and U.S. officials are preparing to charge at least one ISIS detainee, an Iraqi woman referred to as Umm Sayyaf.
Earnest noted that the Obama administration has had success in capturing people on the battlefield, debriefing them for intelligence, and prosecuting them in U.S. courts. Examples include Osama bin Laden associate Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, who was convicted in the Southern District of New York in March 2014 and is now serving a life sentence.
“We have demonstrated, despite the skepticism of a lot of critics on Capitol Hill, that that is an effective way to keep the American people safe,” Earnest said. “It also is an effective way for us to walk the walk when it comes to advocating our basic value we place on human rights. So this is a record and a policy process that the president is proud of.”