President Obama reiterated his determination to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay despite the attorney general’s affirmation to Congress that the administration would be breaking the law by moving detainees to U.S. soil.
In testimony before the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, Attorney General Loretta Lynch acknowledged that “as the administration has stated, the closure of Guantanamo Bay is something that is part of the administration’s policy and the Department Of Justice supports that as well.”
“At this point in time I believe the current state of the law is that individuals are not transferred from Guantanamo to U.S. shores,” Lynch said. “…And certainly it’s the position of the Department of Justice that we would follow the law of the land in regard to that issue.”
“I believe that it is the view of the department that we would certainly observe the laws as passed by Congress and signed by the president. Only very rarely would we take the step of finding that an unconstitutional provision was something that we could not manage.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) later advised Obama to “consult with his own attorney general, particularly in the wake of articles we’ve seen that he’ll continue to try to figure some way around the obvious prohibition that’s been in the law for some time against transferring these detainees to the United States.”
The White House plan to close Guantanamo was expected after Obama returns from his Asia trip, but on Wednesday House leaders were hailing a delay in the delivery of that plan from the administration.
“Once again, the president has been forced to confront the hard reality of Islamic terrorism and admit that closing the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay isn’t as easy as it sounds on the campaign trail. Going back to the drawing board on a vague, ill considered ‘plan’ is a good start. It is also important that he admit that he has no authority to unilaterally close the facility, as Attorney General Lynch did this week,” House Armed Services Committee chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) said.
“The defense authorization bill we have sent back to the President will compel him to tell the American people the truth about the challenges of closing GTMO,” Thornberry added in a statement. “Next year, he will have to lay out the location and costs of new facilities, how he would keep Americans safe, and what he would do with new terrorist captures. It’s another chance to make his case, but with specificity this time. Until then, he should resist the urge to score points on such a serious matter.”
But today, Obama seemed eager to score points in a press conference with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
“With respect to Guantanamo, in the same way that the rhetoric around refugees, suggesting that we should only allow Christians in, or suggesting that we should bar every Syrian applicant even if they are underage — in the same way that that alienates Muslim Americans who are our fellow citizens, our friends and our neighbors and our coworkers, as well as the entire world of 1.6 billion Muslims, Guantanamo has been an enormous recruitment tool for organizations like ISIL,” Obama argued. “It’s part of how they rationalize and justify their demented, sick perpetration of violence on innocent people.”
The president insisted “we can keep the American people safe while shutting down that operation.”
“We’ve already reduced drastically the populations,” he said of Guantanamo. “Keep in mind that the bulk of people who are released from Guantanamo were done so under the previous administration, before I even came in. We have reduced that population further, and I expect that early by next year we may even have fewer than 100 people at Guantanamo. We are spending millions of dollars per detainee, and it’s not necessary for us to keep our people safe.”
Lawmakers in states with facilities that have been scoped out for Guantanamo transfers, including Colorado, Kansas and South Carolina, have vocally been opposing the proposed closure of the prison.
Obama said the administration is “going to go through meticulously, with Congress, what our options are and why we think this should be closed.”
“I guarantee you there will be strong resistance, because in the aftermath of Paris, I think that there is just a very strong tendency for us to get worked up around issues that don’t actually make us safer but make for good political sound bites,” he said. “And whether it’s refugees or Guantanamo, those are handy answers, particularly for folks who aren’t interested in engaging in a more serious debate about how do we invest in the long, hard slog of dealing with terrorism, doing the tough law enforcement work, gathering intelligence meticulously, and building the kind of diplomatic and military solutions that we need in the Middle East.”
In September, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter estimated that “roughly half” of the population at Gitmo is “not safe to release, period.”
“If they’re detained at Guantanamo, fine. I would prefer to find a different place for them, and right now, we’re working with the Congress, because the Congress has to agree to this, because there’re laws restricting what we do with — with respect to Guantanamo Bay,” Carter said in a worldwide troop talk broadcast from Fort Meade
“So we’ll try to come up with a plan and work with Congress to see if we can do that or not. It would be a — it would be a nice thing to do and an important thing to do if we — if we can do it. But we gotta be realistic about the people who are in Guantanamo Bay. They’re there for a reason.”