We are starting to hear leaks about the US President Barack Obama’s latest effort to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. In Washington-speak, that means the new plan should be released soon.
Obama signed an executive order to close the prison in his first days in office. He did not make a big push in those first two years when his party controlled both chambers of the US Congress. Then, after Republicans took control, they started passing legislation banning the president from spending money to move detainees. So now, the president is going to try again to convince Congress it needs to close.
Here is what to expect: The Pentagon has come up with a plan that the White House will send to Congress. It seems likely that it will be a shortlist of prisons, probably on military bases, that could house the detainees. He is likely going to highlight the cost. The White House likes to say it costs $4m an inmate per year.
That figure seemed pretty high. I asked our Pentagon producer to ask how they came up with that number. A military official told him that they take the cost of the base and divide it by the number of prisoners. That would make sense if the prison was the whole reason for the base, but it isn’t. The US had the base before the first person was captured, and it will continue to hold the base if they all leave. To get the real number, you have to know the cost to operate the prison. How much is that? The Pentagon will not say.
‘Recruiting tool for terrorists’
The president will make the argument that the prison serves as a recruiting tool for organisations the US labels as “terrorist organisations”. There will most likely be something that Obama will not want to emphasise. He wants to change the location of many of the prisoners, not their incarceration.
There is a group of prisoners that the president has decided can’t be tried and cannot be released. He signed an executive order saying they can be held indefinitely as long as their cases are periodically reviewed. White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest was asked about this on Friday.
He said: “There’s a certain other group of individuals who are not likely to be able to be transferred because they are so dangerous, but yet, they’re also probably not going to – the evidence that’s been collected against them doesn’t necessarily lend them to the kind of military commission that has been successful in other issues. Those individuals and resolving their case is the hardest part of all of this.”
When asked how many men he was talking about, he said: “A couple dozen is the way I would describe it.”
The president will send his plan to Congress. It is highly unlikely they will agree. The reason the president is taking that step is so he can say: “I tried.” There is a growing sense that President Obama will act on his own. He will make the argument that, as Commander-in-Chief, he has the final say over military prisoners. He could put them all on a plane and send them to a stateside military prison. If he did not tell anyone he was doing it until they landed, there would be very little Congress could do to send them back. They might sue him, but by then, it would be too late. The president could say he lived up to his promise to close the prison. It will remain to be seen if changing the location and the colour of the jumpsuits is enough to stop the criticism.