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White House Denies Report That Obama Plans to Close Guantanamo and Transfer Detainees to US

A White House national security spokeswoman said she knows of no plans to override congressional opposition to moving detainees to US soil.

by Jason Leopold
Oct 10 2014, 6:25pm

Photo by Jason Leopold/VICE News

The White House on Friday shot down a news report that claimed President Barack Obama was considering using his executive powers to override a congressional ban on the transfer of Guantanamo detainees to the US in an effort to speed up the closure of the detention facility before the end of his presidency.

The Wall Street Journal, citing "administration officials," reported late Thursday that the White House was "drafting options" that would allow Obama to bypass Congress and start transferring detainees to the US where they would continue to be held indefinitely at undisclosed prisons.

"The discussions underscore the president's determination to follow through on an early campaign promise before he leaves the White House, officials said, despite the formidable domestic and international obstacles in the way," the Journal reported.

'Guantanamo: Black Out Bay.' Watch the VICE News documentary here.

But on Friday, Caitlin Hayden, the White House National Security Council spokeswoman, indicated to VICE News that she doesn't know what the Journal is talking about. She said that while Obama's plans to shutter the detention facility remains intact, there aren't any new proposals floating around.

"We do not know what new press reports are referring to when they say the Administration is 'drafting options' intended to 'override a congressional ban,'" Hayden told VICE News in an email. "It remains true that we continue to object to Congressional restrictions, as we've made clear many times, including in our Statement of Administration Policy on the House-passed National Defense Authorization Act."

The Act, also referred to as the NDAA, is an annual Defense Department spending bill that contains restrictions on how the Pentagon uses it's funding. The NDAA has consistently prohibited the administration from using funds to transfer detainees to the US as well as conflict zones such as Yemen.

Hayden said that Obama is still determined to make good on his 2009 promise to close Guantanamo.

Every year, Obama has issued a signing statement after he signs the NDAA into law that says, "Congress has enacted unwarranted and burdensome restrictions that have impeded my ability to transfer detainees from Guantanamo…. The executive branch must have the flexibility, among other things, to act swiftly in conducting negotiations with foreign countries regarding the circumstances of detainee transfers."

The administration has been having a difficult time finding countries to accept Guantanamo detainees due, in part, to the bans imposed by Congress that prohibit detainees from being imprisoned or repatriated on US soil — other countries question why they should take detainees if the US won't do it. Of the 149 detainees being held captive at Guantanamo, 79 are cleared for transfer. Six other detainees who were expected to be repatriated to Uruguay earlier this year saw their transfer to the country scuttled at the 11th hour due to a public backlash in the country during an election season.

Earlier this week, the Estonia government announced that it would take in one Guantanamo detainee at the request of the US government. The identity of the detainee is unknown. But Lieutenant Colonel. Myles B. Caggins, a Pentagon spokesman for detainee policy, told VICE News that it's not a done deal, and that Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has not yet notified Congress about the transfer or signed a required waiver stating that the detainee no longer poses a threat to US national security.

"The Defense Department has not notified Congress of any transfer to Estonia," Caggins said. "As required by the NDAA, the Administration must provide to Congress notification of its intent to transfer individuals from Guantanamo 30 days before the individual is moved. In the event of a transfer to Estonia, we would provide to Congress the 30-day notification at the appropriate time."

The administration got into hot water when it secretly transferred five Taliban Guantanamo detainees for Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, a prisoner of war who was held captive by militants for five years.

A report by the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office (GAO) concluded that the $1 million the administration spent on the transfer violated the law, specifically the notification provision in the NDAA and the Antideficiency Act, which prohibits federal agencies from incurring obligations exceeding an amount available in an appropriation.

Bergdahl prisoner swap cost the US $1 million — and was illegal, says government watchdog. Read more here.

The move sparked outrage among congressional Democrats and Republicans alike, and renewed vows to block future efforts by the administration to close Guantanamo.

Members of Congress reacted angrily Friday to the Journal report. Senator Pat Roberts, according to the Hill, said he would filibuster all legislation in the Senate if Obama tries to transfer detainees to the US.

Hayden told VICE News that Obama is still determined to make good on his 2009 promise to close Guantanamo. Last year, during a major counterterrorism speech in which Obama said Guantanamo "has become a symbol around the world for an America that flouts the rule of law," he said his renewed efforts to close Guantanamo would require the transfer of detainees to prisons and military brigs in the US, along with prosecutions of some detainees in federal courts and before military commissions on US soil.

"The President has been clear about the Administration's strategy with respect to Guantanamo Bay," Hayden said. "To the greatest extent possible and consistent with our national security interests, detainees will be repatriated or resettled, or prosecuted in federal courts or military commission proceedings. The Periodic Review Board (PRB) process will review whether certain detainees designated for law of war detention continue to pose a significant threat to the security of the United States."

So-called PRBs are akin to parole board hearings. They review cases of Guantanamo detainees who were not previously cleared for release and were determined to pose a threat to national security under an earlier review. The process lay dormant for years until last year, when Obama revamped it at the height of a mass hunger strike in which detainees protested their indefinite detention. The PRB has heard only a handful of cases since then, and those who the board approved for transfer have not yet been released. One detainee was notified in March that he was scheduled for a PRB hearing, but thus far a date has not been scheduled to evaluate his case.

Caggins, the Pentagon spokesman for detainee policy, told VICE News the PRB process is "continuing to evaluate detainees for continued law of war detention and prepare hearings consistent with" an executive order Obama signed that put the board back to work.

The board is made up of officials from the departments of Defense, Homeland Security, Justice, and State, along with the Offices of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Director of National Intelligence.

"To date, they have completed nine hearings," Caggins said. "Due to the complex nature of the PRB inter-agency process, the sequencing of PRB hearings are not evenly spaced out over a given calendar period. Although the President's priority to transfer detainees from the Guantanamo Bay military detention center is the priority mission, the Department seeks to implement the inter-agency PRB review process with minimal delay."

Caggins added that the board is "actively looking at intelligence and other considerations concerning multiple detainees, both as file reviews and in preparation for full hearings."

Guantanamo's controversial force-feeding policies go on trial. Read more here.

US military action in Iraq and Syria against the Islamic State and the renewed fear of terrorist attacks leveled by government agencies has not impacted the administration's ability to transfer detainees or to continue to review cases, Caggins said.

Meanwhile, although she disputed the claims contained in the Journal report, Hayden said that in order for Obama to make good on his promise to shut down Guantanamo, the administration will continue to encourage Democrats and Republicans can work together to lift the prohibitions enacted by Congress.

Given the reaction to the Journal report by some members of Congress, it seems unlikely that lawmakers will come together on the issue.

Follow Jason Leopold on Twitter: @JasonLeopold