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Obama Sends Plan to Close Guantánamo to Congress

President Obama sent Congress a plan on Tuesday to close the United States military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, his latest attempt to deliver on an unfulfilled promise of his presidency, which faces near-certain rejection by Congress.

The prison has come to symbolize the darker side of the nation's antiterrorism efforts, but the series of steps that Mr. Obama outlined at the White House were as much an acknowledgment of the constraints binding him during his final year in office as they were a practical blueprint for transferring prisoners.

In presenting them, the president made little secret of his frustration that his quest to close Guantánamo, once regarded as a bipartisan moral imperative, had become a divisive political issue.

"I am very cleareyed about the hurdles to finally closing Guantánamo: The politics of this are tough," Mr. Obama said during a 17-minute address. "I don't want to pass this problem on to the next president, whoever it is. And if, as a nation, we don't deal with this now, when will we deal with it?"

Mr. Obama, flanked by Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter, appeared irritated as he spoke. He said the issue had cost him "countless hours" of consternation as he toiled to craft a workable solution to a problem that he inherited from his predecessor, President George W. Bush, and that forced him to apologize on the world stage for an approach to terrorism he never supported.

"Our closest allies have raised it with me continually," Mr. Obama said, mentioning those uncomfortable conversations twice.

Reprising arguments he has made since he first campaigned for president, Mr. Obama said the prison had fueled the recruitment efforts of terrorists, harmed American alliances and been a drain on taxpayer dollars.

"It is viewed as a stain on our broader record of upholding the highest standards of rule of law," Mr. Obama said. "This is about closing a chapter in our history."

It was also a final bid to erase what has become a painful and persistent blot on his tenure: his inability to tackle an issue that animated his campaign in 2008 and in many ways encapsulates his approach to national security. The White House refused on Tuesday, as Mr. Obama's advisers have done consistently, to rule out the prospect that he would use his constitutional powers as commander in chief, if Congress refuses to act, to close the prison unilaterally before leaving office.

The nine-page plan was immediately rejected by Republican presidential candidates and members of Congress.

"Not only are we not going to close Guantánamo, when I am president, if we capture a terrorist alive, they are not getting a court hearing in Manhattan. They are not going to be sent to Nevada," Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, a presidential candidate, said at a campaign rally in Las Vegas before the state's Republican caucus. "They are going to Guantánamo, and we are going to find out everything they know."

Democrats, too, were skeptical of the strategy, which centers on bringing to a prison on domestic soil 30 to 60 detainees who are deemed too dangerous to release, while transferring the remaining detainees to other countries.

The blueprint offered few specifics, refraining from mentioning any of the potential replacement facilities the Pentagon had visited in preparing it, including military prisons in Leavenworth, Kan., and Charleston, S.C., as well as several civilian prisons in Colorado.

Senator Michael Bennet, Democrat of Colorado, swiftly issued a statement saying that none of the prisoners should be transferred to his state, where many terrorists are already held in the "supermax" wing of a complex in Florence.

He gave his warning before Mr. Obama began speaking, underscoring the harsh political realities the president faces.

At the start of his administration, Mr. Obama noted, Republicans — including his predecessor, George W. Bush, and his rival for the White House, Senator John McCain of Arizona — backed the idea of closing the prison. "This was not some radical, far-left view," Mr. Obama said. But "the public was scared into thinking that, well, if we close it, somehow we'll be less safe."

The Pentagon argued in its proposal that replacing Guantánamo would cost less than keeping detainees at the naval base in Cuba. Upgrading an existing prison could cost as much as $475 million, but would save the government as much as $85 million annually in operational costs compared with Guantánamo, it found.

The president's plan faces steep obstacles, however. Congress has enacted a law banning the military from transferring detainees from Guantánamo onto domestic soil, and lawmakers have shown little interest in lifting that restriction.

But on Tuesday, Mr. Obama implored lawmakers to give the plan a "fair hearing," saying it offered "an opportunity here for progress."

"We've got an obligation to try," he said.

Human rights groups and lawyers for detainees were divided. Some oppose bringing detainees who are being detained indefinitely without trial onto domestic soil, saying that would simply relocate the problem without solving it.

"The president wouldn't be closing Guantánamo," said David H. Remes, who represents 13 Yemeni detainees, five of them on the transfer list. "He'd just be moving it to the United States."

But Raha Wala of Human Rights First said his organization would support moving the final batch of detainees into the United States if that was what was required to finally close the Guantánamo prison.

The Bush administration opened the prison in January 2002 and sent detainees from the Afghanistan war there. It declared that the detainees were not protected by the Geneva Conventions and that courts had no authority to oversee what the government did to prisoners at the base. In the prison's early years, interrogators frequently used coercive techniques on detainees.

In one of his first acts as president, Mr. Obama issued an executive order instructing the government to shut the prison down within a year. But that proved easier said than done, and as the administration studied how to go about achieving that goal, political support for it melted away.

Mr. Obama has refused to add any more detainees to the 242 he inherited, instead working to chip away at the population. Of the 91 who remain, 35 are recommended for transfer if security conditions can be met, 10 have been charged or convicted before the military commissions system, and 46 have neither been charged with a crime nor approved for transfer.

A parolelike periodic review board is slowly working its way through their numbers and moving some to the transfer list. It was meeting even on Tuesday, senior administration officials said, as Mr. Obama strode into the Roosevelt Room to say, "Let us go ahead and close this chapter."

[Source: By Charlie Savage and Julie Hirschfeld Davis, The New York Times, Washington, 23Feb16]

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small logoThis document has been published on 26Feb16 by the Equipo Nizkor and Derechos Human Rights. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.