Does President Obama Still Have a Plan for Closing Guantánamo?

3.8.15

A collaged image of President Obama and a guard tower at Guantanamo.Recently, there was a brief flurry of media interest in Guantánamo after the New York Times published an article by Charlie Savage entitled, “Obama’s Plan for Guantánamo Is Seen Faltering.”

Savage noted how the Obama administration’s “fitful effort” to shut down the prison at Guantánamo “is collapsing again,” pointing out how, in his first six months as defense secretary, Ashton Carter “has yet to make a decision on any newly proposed deals to transfer individual detainees,” and claiming that, according to unnamed officials, this delay, “which echoes a pattern last year by his predecessor, Chuck Hagel,” is “generating mounting concern in the White House and State Department.” The most recent transfers out of Guantánamo — of six Yemenis resettled in Oman —  were in June, but they were part of deal negotiated under Hagel, which saw four other Yemenis rehoused in Oman in January.

Savage wrote that, in mid-July, President Obama’s national security adviser, Susan Rice, “convened a cabinet-level ‘principals committee’ meeting on how to close the prison before the president leaves office in 18 months.” At that meeting, Carter “was presented with an unsigned National Security Council memo stating that he would have 30 days to make decisions on newly proposed transfers,” according to several officials familiar with the discussions.

However, the meeting apparently “ended inconclusively.” Carter “did not commit to making a decision on pending transfer proposals by a particular date, including the repatriation of a Mauritanian and a Moroccan” — mentioned as pending releases in a Washington Post article in April, which I discussed here — and Savage added that it was unclear whether Carter “accepted the 30-day deadline.”

Carter already has the most significant role in approving releases, because he has to sign assurances, submitted to Congress 30 days before any transfer, stating that any risks in releasing prisoners “have been substantially mitigated.” As Charlie Savage put it, “The law effectively vests final power in the defense secretary and makes him personally accountable if something goes wrong.”

With this in mind, it is increasingly worrying that Carter has not yet approved anyone for transfer out of Guantánamo, even though 52 of the remaining 116 prisoners have been approved for release — 44 in 2009-10 by President Obama’s high-level, inter-agency Guantánamo Review Task Force, and eight more by Periodic Review Boards in the last year and a half. 43 of these men are Yemenis, and as Charlie Savage noted, because Yemen “is in chaos, the American government is trying to resettle them, not repatriate them.”

Robert M. Chesney, a law professor at the University of Texas who worked on detainee policy for the Obama administration in 2009, told the Times, “The chances of getting it done on Obama’s watch are getting increasingly slim. Whatever hope there is depends on quick progress in transferring as many detainees as possible.” He added, however, that “there is still going to have to be a deal with Congress for the remainder for long-term custody in the United States.”

After noting that President Obama “has called closing Guantánamo a ‘national imperative,’ arguing that it fuels anti-American sentiment and wastes money,” Charlie Savage related how, in a written statement, Lisa Monaco, the president’s top counter-terrorism adviser, said that the president remained “steadfast in his commitment” to close Guantánamo.

Monaco wrote, “This is a goal that the entire national security team is working together to fulfill — from the White House to the Departments of Defense, State and Justice as well as the intelligence community.” She added, “The safety of Americans is our first priority, and each transfer decision involves careful vetting and negotiation of detailed security arrangements. These deliberations take time because these are important decisions.”

Officials told Savage that inter-agency tensions with Ashton Carter had “not reached the levels they did by last fall with Mr. Hagel, who eventually resigned under pressure.” Savage added that, towards the end of his time in the job, Hagel “cleared a backlog of proposed deals, leading to more than two dozen transfers between November and January,” including the ten Yemenis sent to Oman.

Lee Wolosky, the new State Department envoy for Guantánamo closure, said that the government “was talking with multiple countries about ‘the transfer of a large number of detainees’ from the list” of cleared prisoners awaiting release. He added, “This process will ramp up further in the coming weeks, as reducing the detainee population through foreign transfers is a critical component to our broader efforts to close the detention facility.”

However, Ashton Carter still has to approve any deals, as Charlie Savage pointed out. His deputy, Robert O. Work, said in a statement that the Pentagon would “continue to work with the national security team and the Congress to close the facility in an efficient and responsible manner.”

In his article, Savage also discussed the ongoing opposition to the closure of Guantánamo in Congress, noting how, in February, at Ashton Carter’s confirmation hearing, two Republican senators “asked him to commit that he would not succumb to pressure by the White House over Guantánamo transfers.” Carter’s response? “I understand my responsibilities under that statute, and I’ll, as in everything else I do, I’ll play it absolutely straight,” he said.

Charlie Savage also noted how the House and Senate Armed Services Committees are currently “meeting to resolve differences between their versions of the annual National Defense Authorization Act, which includes the detainee transfer restrictions.” He explained that the House bill “would further tighten the standards, most likely shutting down any more transfers,” while the Senate version “would largely extend existing restrictions,” and he also noted that the White House “has threatened to veto both versions.” I discussed these deliberations in an article in June, “The Path to Closing Guantánamo,” in which I also discussed an additional issue included in the Senate version — as Charlie Savage put it, “a process, proposed by Senator John McCain of Arizona, the Republican chairman of the Armed Services Committee, for closing the prison: The administration would submit a plan to Congress, and if both chambers approve it, the ban on bringing the remaining detainees to domestic soil would be lifted.”

Charlie Savage noted how Ashton Carter and Lisa Monaco “have promised to give Mr. McCain a plan,” although he noted that it was expected to be similar to previous proposals — “to transfer all lower-level detainees, while bringing those deemed too dangerous for release to a military prison on domestic soil.” He added, “Of the latter group, some would be prosecuted while the rest would be held as wartime prisoners, with periodic parole-like reviews.”

Savage also noted that the plan “has previously failed to persuade skeptics of Mr. Obama’s Guantánamo policy, particularly in the House,” and a Republican congressional staff member told him that President Obama’s critics “also wanted to see, as part of the plan, discussion of how law-of-war detention would be used to hold and interrogate terrorism suspects captured in the future.” However, as Savage explained, “The administration has developed a model of first interrogating new captives for a period for intelligence purposes, often on a ship, and then transferring them to civilian courts for prosecution,” and “considers that model to be one of its policy achievements.”

The day after the New York Times article was published, the administration followed up. As Reuters put it, the White House said “it was in the final stage of drafting a plan for closing the Guantánamo prison.”

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the administration “hoped to ‘short circuit’ opposition from Republicans in Congress who have blocked Obama from closing the prison.” At a press briefing, Earnest said that the administration was “in the final stages of drafting a plan to safely, responsibly, close the prison at Guantánamo and to present that plan to Congress.”

Time also covered the story, speaking to Daphne Eviatar of Human Rights First, who said, “the fact that the White House is working [on a] plan could be a good first step, but questions still remain as to whether or not Congress will be able to approve any plan given many members’ opposition to closing the prison,” as Time described it. As Eviatar said, “It’s still within the Administration’s power to do a lot to close the prison. [The White House] can’t keep blaming Congress, but Congress also needs to do more. It shouldn’t be this political football anymore.”

Christopher Anders, senior legislative counsel at the ACLU, also spoke to Time. He said that the plan being sent to Congress would “constitute no more than an ‘irrelevant checking of the box,'” and added that President Obama “already has the executive authority to make detainee transfers happen without Congress” — a waiver that the president has possessed since 2012.

As Anders put it, “It’s not much different than plans that have already been sent and it’s not going to convince Congress to change its mind. Obama should tell the Secretary of Defense to approve the transfer of cleared detainees.”

Anders added that the lack of prisoner releases was the “number one obstacle” facing the president and that the Pentagon was “digging in its heels” on closing the prison.

In conclusion, it is difficult to see quite what the flurry of media activity signified. It is certainly to be hoped that the administration, with Sen. McCain, can come up with a plan that might be used to persuade Congress to allow the president to fulfil his promise to close Guantánamo before he leaves office, but it is impossible to say with a straight face, and with any optimism, that this can or will happen.

However, what can and should happen is the release of as many as possible of the 52 men already approved for transfer, including Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison, and other men mentioned in April — the Mauritanian Ahmed Ould Abdel Aziz and the Moroccan Younus Chekhouri.

Ashton Carter should approve these men’s transfer as soon as possible.

To encourage defense secretary Carter, please feel free to call the Pentagon on 703-571-3343 to leave him a message.

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer, film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose debut album, ‘Love and War,’ was released in July 2015). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign, the co-director of We Stand With Shaker, calling for the immediate release from Guantánamo of Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by the University of Chicago Press in the US, and available from Amazon, including a Kindle edition — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here — or here for the US).

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Please also consider joining the Close Guantánamo campaign, and, if you appreciate Andy’s work, feel free to make a donation.

5 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks to everyone liking and sharing this. It’s important that those of us who care about the need to close Guantanamo keep focused, as the situation for the men still held (54 of whom are awaiting release, as promised for the most part back in 2009-10, and 54 others who are awaiting reviews of their cases) has, once more, become mired in inertia, an unforgiveable situation getting on for 14 years since most of those held were first captured.

  2. the talking dog says...

    Well, maybe this President will lighten up a bit and do something on this, his 54th birthday today.

    Not how you bet, of course. The DOD “deep state” people seem to desperately want the demonstration of “victory” (capturing a bunch of hapless nobodies… indeed, more likely buying them from warlords) that GTMO represents to them. It seems clear to me that whomever assumes the DOD Secretariat, at least under this President, is going to fall into the same pattern and squelch broader efforts to shut the thing down. One wonders if a President Jeb Bush or a President Hillary Clinton (or maybe even a President Donald Trump) would do things significantly differently when, as seems inevitable, they ultimately inherit prisoners at Guantanamo as a result of Obama’s inability to close it.

    And maybe that’s cause of (a little glimmer of) optimism. I’m thinking a “Nixon goes to China” opportunity (particularly if it’s a Republican President, or even the warmongering alleged Democrat Hillary Clinton). For all the tough talk we can expect going forward in the campaign for the next year or so, I suspect the next President will have a greater ability, and perhaps an incentive, to actually close the place. Obama’s alleged virtue is actually his fatal flaw: he is a “compromiser.” He tried to make everyone happy, first by promising to close GTMO, and then by signing bill after bill into law that supposedly restricted his authority in this area (even as he can easily circumvent such laws, if people he appoints actually chose to act).

    I suspect the next President will just find having to continually justify Guantanamo at every international forum to be a continued annoyance, and will be somewhat freed up from having made promises to close it. Not necessarily how you bet, but at least cause for some glimmer of hope.

  3. Jim says...

    I suspect that if President Obama actually has any plans to close Guantanamo, he will do that sometime after the 2016 election; of course, I doubt that he really has any intention of closing the prison, and sadly, the only people in the government who oppose him are even less likely to want it closed. The slim chance of the President actually closing Guantanamo makes Andy’s tireless research and reporting even more important; hopefully, his work will serve as a record of a part of Obama’s legacy that the administration may not want history to remember.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Ah, well, happy birthday then, Mr. President.
    As you indicate though, TD, that was never going to happen.
    I like your description of the DOD “deep state” people who want to keep Guantanamo open – like the many lawmakers who do – and as usual I can’t quite work out how cynical or how stupid these people are, but it’s certainly one or the other.
    As for your glimmer of hope, well, yes, I’m going to share it tentatively. Obama has indeed been too much of a compromiser, but I’m not sure if Hillary has the will to do anything, or if any of the Republican hopefuls can actually get elected. If the former, there will need to be a massive charm offensive from those of us who care about closing Guantanamo before she gets in, and if the latter, well it may be good news for Guantanamo, but not for much else! Whatever happened to the future looking bright?

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for your endorsement of my work, Jim. It is greatly appreciated.
    I think we are creeping with glacial slowness towards the closure of Guantanamo, with new prisoners approved for release as a result of Periodic Review Boards, and some recognition from John McCain, as the chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, that a plan is needed to transfer some of the remaining prisoners to the mainland so that Guantanamo itself can be closed. However, I’m not sure Congress will play ball, or even if any kind of consensus can be reached regarding transfers to the US mainland if those being moved are not to face trials, but are to be held in some sort of ongoing imprisonment without charge or trial. I think that would open up new legal challenges for the prisoners, as there is no precedent for holding people without charge or trial on the US mainland, but some NGOs and lawyers disagree, and I suspect that, in addition, there are lawmakers who won’t want to endorse any plan unless it contains new legislation establishing detention without charge or trial on the mainland, which everyone who cares about justice would have to resist.
    What a mess Guantanamo is, and what a disgrace every second it remains open. I do hope that one day those responsible for establishing it will be held accountable.

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo, co-director, We Stand With Shaker. Also, singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers) and photographer.
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