WASHINGTON — Fed up with the stalled progress toward closing the Guantanamo Bay detention center, President Barack Obama summoned top administration officials to the White House for an unusual meeting last month to make it clear he wanted action.
The President addressed the team at length, emphasizing why he wants to shut down the detention facility for terrorism suspects, according to administration officials familiar with the meeting, which wasn’t on Obama’s public schedule.
The Presidential lecture was the culmination of months of White House frustration with his own administration’s inaction. Since then, the a dozen prisoners have been transferred overseas — more than all of last year and the most since 2010.
“We’re working on it,” Obama said at a bookstore over the Thanksgiving weekend when a shopper expressed hope Guantanamo will close.
With the sudden surge in transfers, Guantanamo is now at a turning point. The prisoner population is at 136 — down from a high of near 700 and its lowest point since shortly after it opened in January 2002 — with 68 of the prisoners cleared for transfer. Officials have said at least five more will be moved by Dec. 31.
Obama is trying to work his way toward the pledge he made on his first day in office to close the detention center at the U.S. Navy base in Cuba. But actually closing it would still either require approval from Congress, which has prohibited transferring any prisoners to the U.S., or a bold unilateral action that his opponents are warning him against but administration officials say hasn’t been ruled out.
“I’m doubtful,” said Matthew Waxman, Professor at Columbia Law School and former Pentagon adviser on detainee issues. “He hasn’t demonstrated a willingness to spend that political capital so far.”
The President has said Guantanamo should close because it’s unnecessary, it’s expensive at more than $440 million a year and it serves as a propaganda tool for the country’s enemies, a shorthand symbol of the brutal tactics detailed in the Senate Intelligence Committee report on the CIA’s post-9/11 interrogation program. But members of Congress argue that it should remain open to hold and question terrorism suspects.
The Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, has objected to transfers of Guantanamo detainees while the U.S. military is fighting terrorists.
In a letter obtained by The Associated Press, McKeon wrote Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Dec. 10 raising concerns about unidentified detainees that the Pentagon recently notified Congress it intended to transfer. “The release of these detainees raises considerable questions and concerns about the risk to Americans,” the California Republican wrote.
The letter could refer to the administration’s effort to send four Afghan detainees back to their home country, where U.S. troops remain deployed amid a resurgent Taliban threat. But McKeon’s office and administration officials would not comment on whether the Pentagon has sent classified notification to Congress that the transfer has been approved, which is required 30 days before a detainee can leave.
Administration officials said the President’s message in the Nov. 19 White House meeting was primarily directed at Hagel, who was reluctant to sign off on guarantees that those transferred would not pose a security threat, including the Afghans. Five days after that meeting, Hagel resigned under pressure, with administration officials saying Guantanamo was one of the issues behind his departure.
Guantanamo opponents say Obama’s nominee to replace Hagel, former Pentagon official Ashton Carter, hasn’t taken a public stance on the prison, but they are hopeful he can overcome reluctance within some parts of the Defense Department to closing it.
The White House would not comment on Obama’s discussions with Carter over Guantanamo. But an administration official, speaking on a condition of anonymity without authorization to go on the record, said Obama wouldn’t pick someone for the job who doesn’t understand closure is a top priority.
Most of those cleared for transfers are from Yemen, where a violent al-Qaida affiliate makes it too unstable to send them home. But the day after Obama’s meeting, Georgia and Slovakia accepted the first Yemenis to leave since 2010, proving that resettlement is possible after years of struggle to find countries willing to take them. It will require painstaking diplomatic work to resettle the Yemenis who remain.
Administration officials say more prisoners who previously were classified as too dangerous to be let out are expected to be cleared for transfer in an ongoing review.
But the administration doesn’t want to release some detainees, including the prisoners facing trial by military commission for war crimes — a group that includes five men charged with planning and aiding the Sept. 11, 2001, attack. Their fate remains the final stumbling block to closure.
(NEDRA PICKLER and BEN FOX)