Defense Secretary Ash Carter has at last sent President Barack Obama a plan to close the U.S. military detention center in Cuba and move remaining detainees to a U.S. alternative.
“Not everyone in GTMO can be safely transferred to another country, so we need an alternative,” Carter said Thursday in Miami. “I have therefore framed for the president a proposal to establish an alternative location. That plan will propose bringing those detainees to an appropriate, secure location in the United States.”
Carter’s plan presents a list of potential options for where on U.S. soil the Pentagon would put the “worst of the worst” Guantanamo detainees, but does not recommend a specific site.
A senior administration official said on condition of anonymity that the president’s national security team is in the “final stages of reviewing the proposal,” submitted by the Pentagon this month. “No specific site is selected for potential detention in the United States,” the official said.
Hours before Carter spoke, the Pentagon transferred 10 Yemeni detainees to Oman, trimming the population of Guantanamo by about 10 percent. Now 93 detainees remain, the first time the total has been under 100 since 2002, shortly after the prison opened. Three more remain to be transferred to fulfill the Obama administration’s announcement that 17 would leave in early 2016.
Administration officials believe that cutting Guantanamo’s population to under 100 individuals would mollify lawmakers who have blocked any transfers to U.S. soil.
But opponents have made clear they’ll continue their opposition. Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., said in a Wednesday statement in response to reports of the latest transfer: “Any Obama administration decision to transfer a large number of Yemeni detainees from Guantanamo to Oman would represent a thinly veiled attempt to undercut the will of Congress and would further endanger the American people.”
The Obama administration has been working on the closure plan since last year, but the Pentagon has repeatedly delayed its delivery to Congress; first, to allow the Defense Department to survey potential sites, and again when the plan was determined to be too costly, undermining the White House’s argument that closing Guantanamo would save money.
Carter spoke Thursday at the change of command ceremony for U.S. Southern Command, where retiring Gen. John Kelly has overseen Guantanamo for three years. At the Pentagon last week, Kelly told Defense One, “Bombing the living shit out of ISIS in Iraq and Afghanistan, Syria, that would maybe irritate them more than the fact we have Guantanamo open.” For terrorist groups and rights activists alike, he said, “What tends to bother them is the fact that we’re holding them there indefinitely without trial … it’s not the point that it’s Gitmo. If we send them, say, to a facility in the U.S., we’re still holding them without trial.”
In his final State of the Union, Obama vowed to keep pushing to close Guantanamo: “It’s expensive, it’s unnecessary, and it only serves as a recruitment brochure for our enemies.”
But when asked before the address if Congress would prevent the president from shuttering the detention center, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said, “I sure hope so … it’s the perfect place for terrorists.”