Another voice: Obama's start on closing Guantanamo

Published Feb. 24, 2016

President Barack Obama vowed as he took office seven years ago to close the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, prison, whose use for the holding of terrorist suspects arrested abroad long ago proved counterproductive. Thanks to congressional opposition, he has not fulfilled the pledge. On Tuesday, the president offered one more plan for doing so, only to be swiftly rebuffed by Republicans. Though the proposal was flawed, he deserves more of a hearing. As Obama rightly argued, this festering legacy of the George W. Bush administration's response to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, should not be passed on to the next president.

This administration bears some responsibility for Guantanamo's continuing role as a warehouse for prisoners who were captured in the early 2000s, mostly in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and held ever since. Since 2009, the Pentagon has moved only in fits and starts to review the cases of those held and to arrange the transfer of those freed for release. Obama has nevertheless managed to reduce the population from 238 to 91, of whom 10 are on trial in military commissions and 35 have been cleared for release to other countries.

The Pentagon plan submitted to Congress calls for the transfer of those who cannot be safely released to other countries — about 60 prisoners — to a location, most likely a federal prison, in the United States. The military commission trials, including of several of the prime authors of the 9/11 attacks, would continue. But as Obama pointed out, the proceedings have resulted in "years of litigation without a resolution." He said the administration would soon propose reforms to the commissions requiring congressional action.

Part of the resistance to closing Guantanamo comes from Republicans who insist that it would be too dangerous to hold al-Qaida militants anywhere in the United States. This is unserious: Federal supermax prisons already securely house a number of dangerous terrorists, both foreign and domestic. The Obama administration has made a practice of transferring al-Qaida suspects to the federal court system for prosecution, with good results.

A more serious objection comes from Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the Armed Services Committee chairman, who has favored closing Guantanamo. He says the Pentagon plan punts on crucial specifics about how present and future terrorist detainees would be held. Though it studied more than a dozen potential domestic facilities, the administration did not settle on a recommended site; nor did its report specify what would be required to modify a domestic prison to hold war prisoners. What would happen to the major al-Qaida figures now on trial was not spelled out. And the plan does not provide for terrorist operatives who might be captured in the future and held under the laws of war.

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McCain said his committee will "closely scrutinize and hold hearings" on Obama's proposal. That provides an opening for the administration to work with those in Congress who favor closing Guantanamo to develop a more detailed plan. It's not enough for the president to give speeches about shutting down the prison; he must offer specifics, and follow through on Capitol Hill.