President Barack Obama repeatedly promised to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility in Cuba after he took office in 2009, but that hasn't worked out so well. Now, as he approaches his final year in office in the wake of last week's terror attacks in Paris, his pledge seems as doomed as ever — but he insists he's undeterred.
Speaking at a joint press conference in Manila with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Obama acknowledged the persistent challenges he's faced in the effort, but said he would nevertheless move forward with a plan to shutter the prison before he leaves office.
Likening the fierce opposition to closing Guantanamo among lawmakers to "rhetoric" against resettling Syrian refugees in the US, Obama conceded that the recent attacks will further complicate his proposal.
"In the same way that the rhetoric around refugees suggesting that we should only allow Christians in or suggesting that we should bar every Syrian applicant even if they are underage — in the same way that that alienates Muslim-Americans who are our fellow citizens… as well as the entire world of 1.6 billion Muslims, Guantanamo has been an enormous recruitment tool for organizations like ISIL," he said, using an alternative name for the Islamic State terror group, also commonly known as ISIS. "Which is part of how they rationalize and justify their demented sick perpetration of violence on innocent people. And we can keep the American people safe while shutting down that operation."
"I guarantee you there will be strong resistance," he added, "because, in the aftermath of Paris, I think there is just a very strong tendency for us to get worked up around issues that don't actually make ussafer but make for good political sound bites."
The cornerstone of the long-awaited plan, which has yet to be unveiled, calls for relocating the captives housed at Guantanamo to prison facilities in the US operated by the Department of Defense. Navy Commander Gary Ross, a Pentagon spokesperson, said that a small team of Defense Department officials has conducted a half-dozen or so "site surveys" over the past year in an effort to determine possible locations and costs for holding a "limited number of current Guantanamo detainees in the United States."
The prisons surveyed were the US Disciplinary Barracks and Midwest Joint Regional Corrections Facility in Leavenworth, Kansas; the Consolidated Naval Brig in Charleston, South Carolina; the Federal Correctional Complex, which includes the medium, maximum, and supermax facility in Florence, Colorado; and Centennial Correctional Facility in Canon City, Colorado.
The chief prosecutors of these three states sent a letter to Obama this week that said, "Moving detainees to the mainland will create imminent danger and make the communities where they are placed targets."
The White House and the Pentagon were expected to release the so-called closure plan last week, prior to the president's trip to the G20 Summit. Some Republican lawmakers suggested that the Paris attacks had apparently forced the administration to shelve the plan.
"The administration's time would be better spent on a plan to defeat ISIS than on one to move terrorist detainees to our homeland," said Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, who has been harshly critical of efforts to close Guantanamo. "This delay should be permanent."
But on Thursday Obama countered that the attacks, which resulted in the deaths of 129 people and the wounding of more than 300 others, had nothing to do with the fact that the plan has not yet been presented to Congress. He said that the White House and the Pentagon are still working out the costs of moving detainees to the US.
The proposal is virtually identical to failed closure plans Obama proposed just months after he was sworn into office in 2009 and again in 2013 — the latter at the height of a mass hunger strike at Guantanamo.
Obama will be hard-pressed to make good on his campaign pledge of closing the detention facility before he leaves office. While some members of Congress have indicated their interest in reviewing the closure plan, not a single lawmaker has said that he or she would assist the administration in its attempt to execute the proposal.
The only lawmaker who has come close has been California Senator Dianne Feinstein, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee.
"Instead of blocking President Obama's efforts to close the costly Guantanamo Bay detention facility, Congress should be working with him to finally shut it down," she wrote in a recent New York Times op-ed.
Complicating Obama's efforts, last week lawmakers passed an annual defense spending bill that included a provision prohibiting his administration from transferring detainees to American soil. Obama said he would sign the bill into law.
"The defense authorization bill we have sent back to the president will compel him to tell the American people the truth about the challenges of closing" Guantanamo, said Texas Representative Mac Thornberry, the Republican chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. "Next year, he will have to lay out the location and costs of new facilities, how he would keep Americans safe, and what he would do with new terrorist captures. It's another chance to make his case, but with specificity this time. Until then, he should resist the urge to score points on such a serious matter."
At Thursday's press conference, Obama emphasized the hefty costs that are already involved in maintaining the controversial facility.
"We are spending millions of dollars per detainee," he said. "And it's not necessary for us to keep our people safe. So, we are going to go through meticulously with Congress what all options are, why we think this should be closed."
Some Democratic leaders have said that there's nothing left for Congress to do, and that Obama would be better off using his executive authority if he wants to close Guantanamo.
"Congress has done their job," Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid told reporters last week when he was asked if Obama would use executive authority to close the prison. "They have spoken on Guantanamo, and so, the president will do what he has to do. He has been sent a bill. He'll determine whether he has any administrative authority to do anything different."
Administration officials have told VICE News that there has not been any active discussion about Obama using his executive authority to close Guantanamo absent congressional support. White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said at a briefing last week that the "focus of our efforts right now is on Congress." Still, he noted that all options remain on the table.
Senator John McCain, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has said he will take the administration to court if Obama tries to do an end-run around Congress and shut Guantanamo. McCain has been largely supportive of Obama's efforts to close the facility, but has criticized the administration for dragging its feet on submitting a plan that he could support and present to members of Congress.
"For many years, I have believed that it would further US national security interests to close the Guantanamo detention facility. I still do," McCain said earlier this year. "The problem is that, for more than six years now, the Obama administration has offered no comprehensive plan to responsibly close the Guantanamo detention facility.... What we now have instead is the perception of a president rushing to fulfill a political promise."
Watch the VICE News documentary Guantanamo: Blacked Out Bay
Former White House Counsel Greg Craig, who in 2009 was tasked with working on a plan to close Guantanamo within a year, co-authored an op-ed in the Washington Post with Clifford Sloan, the State Department's former envoy for Guantanamo closure, that said Congress's "irrational prohibition" restricting the administration from using Defense Department fund to close the facility "is plainly unconstitutional." They wrote that Obama has the constitutional authority as commander-in-chief to unilaterally shut down the prison.
In testimony this week before the House Judiciary Committee, US Attorney General Loretta Lynch said that she is unaware of any effort by Obama to act unilaterally on Guantanamo.
"I believe that it is the view of the department that we will observe the laws as passed by Congress and signed by the president," she said. "Only very rarely do we take the step of finding that an unconstitutional provision was something we could not manage — we would of course seek to work with Congress and the administration to resolve that issue."
In response, Jack Goldsmith, the former head of the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel, which provides legal guidance to the president, wrote on the blog Lawfare, "Nothing in Lynch's remarks would preclude the President from later concluding that the transfer restrictions are unconstitutional."
Even if Obama manages to somehow win enough support for his closure plan, at this point it seems that shutting Guantanamo will amount to little more than a relatively modest money-saving measure and the fulfillment of a campaign promise.
In 2011, Obama signed an executive order institutionalizing indefinite detention, which states that some Guantanamo detainees can be held until they die because they are considered to be a threat to national security and/or because they are simply too difficult to prosecute. Holding detainees in US prisons would save taxpayers tens of millions of dollars, but the overall policies governing the ongoing detention of detainees would remain the same.
As Steven Hawkins, the executive director of Amnesty International, noted in a letter to the editor published in the New York Times, "The purpose of closing Guantanamo should be to end the human rights violation of indefinite detention without charge — not merely move it to a new location and change Guantanamo's ZIP code."
There are currently 107 detainees held captive at Guantanamo, 48 of whom have been cleared for release or transfer. Last Friday, just hours after the terrorist attacks in Paris, five low-level Guantanamo detainees were transferred to the United Arab Emirates.
On Thursday, Obama said he expects that by early next year there will be less than 100 detainees remaining at Guantanamo — an indication that Congress has been notified, as required by law, about additional transfers.