WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama is pushing to overcome obstacles to closing the Guantanamo Bay prison, an elusive goal which has frustrated him since he took office. That is setting the White House on a collision course with Congress in its bid to loosen restrictions for moving out detainees.
Administration officials say a Senate defence policy bill, coming up for debate within days, would allow them to move out prisoners who have long been cleared for transfer overseas but are still held, in part because of a complicated Pentagon certification process. The bill would ease those restrictions and lift a ban on bringing suspected terrorist prisoners from Guantanamo to the United States for detention, trial or emergency medical treatment.
The White House effort faces dogged resistance, with opponents pointing out that some former detainees have joined terrorist efforts after being released from the remote U.S. naval prison in Cuba.
"Why would you want to reduce the standard?" asked Sen. Kelly Ayotte, who along with Sen. Saxby Chambliss, is working on amendments to preserve the current high bar for transfers.
Even if the Senate passes the White House-backed legislation, the House earlier this year approved a measure that further restricts transfers, including an outright ban on sending detainees to Yemen. Yemen is a particular challenge since more than half of the 164 detainees are from there. It's also home to the world's most active al-Qaida branch.
Obama himself imposed a ban on Yemeni transfers from Guantanamo after a Nigerian man attempted to blow up a U.S.-bound flight on Christmas 2009 with explosives hidden in his underwear on instructions from al-Qaida operatives in Yemen. But Obama lifted that moratorium in his speech on May 23 at National Defence University in which he said Guantanamo "has become a symbol around the world for an America that flouts the rule of law."
"I transferred 67 detainees to other countries before Congress imposed restrictions to effectively prevent us from either transferring detainees to other countries or imprisoning them here in the United States. These restrictions make no sense," Obama said. He has vowed to close the prison.
"There is no justification beyond politics for Congress to prevent us from closing a facility that should never have been opened," Obama said.
Purely from an economic point of view, the administration says Guantanamo is too costly. U.S. Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel told Congress that annual spending on Guantanamo was $454 million — or about $2.7 million per detainee.
Obama has not said much publicly about Guantanamo in the six months since the speech, but administration officials say he presses Hagel and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on the matter every week. Obama also has new special envoys for Guantanamo closure at the State Department and Pentagon working full time on the matter.
"Our marching orders are very clear from the president, and in terms of what he wants to do, and that's to close the facility," said envoy Clifford Sloan at the State Department.
Sloan said achieving that goal requires three steps — transferring out those who have been approved, prosecuting others and making a plan for the remaining detainees accused of participating in dangerous plots who cannot be prosecuted because the evidence against them is inadmissible in a court of law. That's a tall order on a three-year clock, but Sloan vowed, "Step by step, we will get there, and we will close it."
Sloan has been holding meetings across Capitol Hill to push for more flexibility, while Lisa Monaco, Obama's top counterterrorism adviser in the White House, has been calling moderate senators to encourage them to back the Senate bill.
The Senate bill would allow the Pentagon to transfer any detainee the administration no longer considers a threat to the United States, as long as actions are taken to "substantially mitigate the risk" that the detainee would re-engage in terrorism and ensure that the transfer is in the national security interest of the United States.
This summer, the administration sent home two Algerian detainees. Eighty-four others have long been cleared for transfer, and the U.S. government has begun a formal review process of about 45 others previously considered too dangerous to be released to determine if circumstances have changed.
Ayotte argued the Algerian transfers prove the current process is working, and Sen. John McCain, agreed that the administration doesn't need more flexibility. "All they have to do is assure us that they won't re-enter the fight, as numerous ones have, in leadership positions. We can't do that," McCain said.
Chris Anders, senior legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, which wants to close Guantanamo, acknowledges the issue is always a tough vote for lawmakers but argues there's a growing recognition that Guantanamo can't stay open forever and harms national security
"What's different this year compared to past years is that the president is ready and willing to use whatever authority Congress gives him to start closing Guantanamo," Anders said, "and particularly to start sending home the majority of detainees who were long ago cleared to be sent back home."