After embarrassing false starts, Barack Obama is making a final push to close Guantanamo prison, but to fulfill that glaringly incomplete campaign promise he faces unpalatable compromises and internal resistance.
When Congress returns from recess in September, Obama’s top counter-terror adviser Lisa Monaco and Defense Secretary Ash Carter will submit a fresh plan to shutter the infamous 13-year-old facility.
As a candidate and as US president, Obama promised to close Guantanamo, arguing indefinite detention, “enhanced interrogation” and images of caged men in orange jump suits violated America’s ethos and handed militants a potent recruiting tool. But ensconced in the Oval Office, he quickly became ensnared in a legal and political thicket.
Six years on, with the clock running down on his presidency, Obama will take another crack.
The plan, which is now virtually complete, would lift Congressional restrictions on transferring detainees to the United States.
The administration is looking at military facilities like Fort Leavenworth, Kansas or the Navy Brig in Charleston, South Carolina as possible destinations for inmates. That may raise objections from hostile local politicians.
But a more substantial roadblock might be the fate of future terror captives and as few as a dozen of the 116 inmates now at Guantanamo deemed too dangerous to release but too difficult to prosecute.
Already critics are warning that Obama’s proposals to amend preventive detention cannot allow a category of indefinite detainees in an indefinite war on terror. That would mean Guantanamo is being moved rather than closed.
“You can’t simply change the zip code at Guantanamo and expect that to solve the human rights problem or erase the stain that Guantanamo has left on the United States’ reputation,” said Naureen Shah of Amnesty International.
But in return for having Congressional restrictions lifted, Obama will have to deal. Senator John McCain, who opened the door to Obama’s plan being heard by Congress, backs Guantanamo’s closure, but wants guarantees inmates will not be given more rights than they already have.
Specifically, the senator — who himself was bayoneted, bound and tortured during five years as a prisoner of the war in Vietnam — wants to make sure that once transferred to the United States, legal machinations will not win an inmate release.
The Obama administration may decide that some form of extended preventive detention may be a price worth paying to be able to close the facility.