In the hope of persuading lawmakers to help him close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, President Obama is preparing to unveil a plan to shutter the facility and move some of the terrorism suspects held there to U.S. soil.
Obama hopes to get Congress to grant him more flexibility in the law that prevents the Guantanamo detainees from being imprisoned in the U.S. and makes it difficult to send them to foreign countries.
The plan – expected to surface as early as this week – will propose one or more prisons from a working list that includes facilities in Kansas, Colorado and South Carolina. Two others that were on the list, in California and Washington state, don’t appear to have made the preliminary cut, according to a senior administration official familiar with the proposal.
The stepped-up activity from the White House comes as Congress is trying to muscle through a defense bill that includes prohibitions on the transfer of detainees from Guantanamo, as lawmakers try to prevent the president from shutting down the facility.
If Obama can’t persuade Congress to go along with his plan, aides say, he hasn’t ruled out exercising his administrative powers and act unilaterally, especially if he believes the continued operation of Guantanamo threatens national security.
The administration wants “to work with Congress where we can,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Wednesday. “But if Congress continues to refuse, I wouldn’t rule out the president using every element of his authority to make progress.”
Obama has shown a willingness to act where Congress has been gridlocked. After a plan for comprehensive immigration reform fell apart on Capitol Hill in 2013, Obama moved to temporarily shield as many as 5 million people from deportation.
Whether Guantanamo’s closure, a campaign promise of Obama’s, would meet a similar fate remains to be seen.
Guantanamo has held 780 terrorism suspects since 2002. A total of 655 have been released or transferred to custody of other nations. Just eight men were tried and convicted of war crimes, and only three of those are still serving time at Guantanamo.
Of the 112 detainees at Guantanamo Bay, almost half have been approved for repatriation or transfer abroad.
Over the summer, Obama called Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) to the Oval Office to ask for his help in closing the prison.
Though their rivalry dates to their 2008 race for the White house, the men share concern about the notorious prison, which critics say serves as a recruiting tool for enemies of the U.S. Key advisors to the president had hoped that McCain, as the influential chairman of the Armed Services Committee, would help shape and win support for such a proposal.
Weeks later, McCain said, Obama sent two top deputies, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and counter-terrorism advisor Lisa Monaco, to McCain’s Capitol Hill office, where they pledged to develop a plan for the prison’s closure.
But the talks never materialized in a serious way, as McCain sees it, and now he is waiting to hear the president’s argument along with the public.
“I told them I’d help them,” McCain said, “but I can’t make it my own plan. That’s why we have a commander-in-chief; that’s why we have presidents. If I had been president, I guarantee you there’d a been a plan.”
McCain did offer what many viewed as a lifeline for the White House by inserting into the defense bill a requirement that the administration submit a “comprehensive strategy” for dealing with current and future detainees. That report, due back in 90 days after the bill’s signing, would pave the way for the White House’s plan.
But Obama has vetoed the bill in part because of the prohibition on detainee transfers. Now, the House is expected to vote Thursday on a new version that addressed the president’s other objections over spending levels, but keeps the prohibition on the detainee transfers in place, setting up another possible veto showdown with Obama.
“It really is a key moment for the president on Guantanamo,” said Christopher Anders, senior legal counsel at the ACLU. “This plan has been in the works for months now. They keep saying it’s going to be soon.”
As part of the administration’s effort to find alternatives to Guantanamo, a Pentagon team assigned to explore replacements visited the U.S. Naval Consolidated Brig in Hanahan, S.C., in August. A month later, they went to the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks at the Army's Ft. Leavenworth in Kansas.
In October, a team scouted facilities in Colorado, including the Administrative Maximum Facility in Florence, which houses some of America’s most dangerous prisoners, among them the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski.
But senior lawmakers in those states were fiercely opposed to relocating detainees near their constituents, however, and opposition in the Republican-led Congress appears overwhelming.
Obama advisors had hoped McCain would help them overcome that opposition, and in an interview Wednesday, he didn’t rule it out.
“I told them for six and a half years they could count on me,” McCain said, “if they had a plan that I could agree with.”
Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California said she joined McCain in demanding a plan from the White House.
“We need a proposal for bringing detainees to the United States and holding them securely for as long as necessary,” Feinstein, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, wrote in an op-ed to be published in Thursday’s New York Times. “But no matter what comes out of the White House, the next steps Congress must take are clear.” She cited the need to alter the pending defense bill to remove the ban on transferring prisoners to the U.S.
Times staff writer W.J. Hennigan in Washington contributed to this report.
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