Obama could be on the verge of another big victory: White House finalizing plan to close Guantanamo Bay

In his sixth year, President Obama sets out to complete promise made on day one

By Sophia Tesfaye

Senior Politics Editor

Published July 22, 2015 7:40PM (EDT)

  (AP/Brennan Linsley)
(AP/Brennan Linsley)

Congress has repeatedly blocked the transfer of prisoners from Guantánamo Bay to the United States for trial and all efforts to close down the military facility but President Obama apparently won't quit trying.

After the New York Times reported this week that "the administration’s fitful effort to shut down the prison is collapsing again," noting that newly installed defense secretary Ash Carter, like his predecessor Chuck Hagel, had failed to act on a plan to transfer detainees out of the prison, the White House announced its own action on the stalled endeavor. During today's White House briefing, Press Secretary Josh Earnest said the U.S. is in "the final stages of drafting a plan to safely and responsibly close" the prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

"That has been something that our national security officials have been working on for quite some time," Earnest claimed before slamming the Congressional obstruction with keeping the facility in operation years past President Obama's January 21, 2009, declaration to shutter it for good. The Times detailed some of the administration's recent efforts to close the scandal-plagued facility, noting Secretary Carter's hesitance to move swiftly to decide on detainee transfers:

Last week, Mr. Obama’s national security adviser, Susan E. Rice, convened a cabinet-level “principals committee” meeting on how to close the prison before the president leaves office in 18 months. At that meeting, Mr. Carter was presented with an unsigned National Security Council memo stating that he would have 30 days to make decisions on newly proposed transfers, according to several officials familiar with the internal deliberations.

But the meeting ended inconclusively. Mr. Carter did not commit to making a decision on pending transfer proposals by a particular date, including the repatriation of a Mauritanian and a Moroccan. Nor was it clear whether he accepted the 30-day deadline, those officials said.

At today's briefing, Earnest made clear that closing the facility “is a priority of the president," adding, "he believes it’s in our national security interest to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay.” But Earnest also said that any plan would likely be presented to Congress. But House Republicans, who do not trust the administration to give them adequate advance warning of a proposed transfer following the Bowe Bergdhal swap, have proposed a restrictions on the transfer of detainees aimed at making it harder to close the facility.

John McCain, who also ran on closing Gitmo in 2008, has proposed a competing bill in the Senate that would allow the White House to continue transferring detainees (albeit with stricter restrictions) if it submits a plan for closing the facility that is approved by Congress. The White House has threatened to veto this year's National Defense Authorization Act if either bill is attached.

The population at Guantanamo this year has dropped from 242 detainees when Obama took office to 116 today. It currently costs the U.S. a reported $2.7 million per prisoner to house a Gitmo detainee. Earnest blasted the price tag as "not an effective use of taxpayer resources." Earlier this year, the president lamented the failure to close the camp, noting that “the path of least resistance was to just keep it open even though it’s not who we are as a country.”

By Sophia Tesfaye

Sophia Tesfaye is Salon's senior editor for news and politics, and resides in Washington, D.C. You can find her on Twitter at @SophiaTesfaye.

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Gitmo Guantanamo Bay National Security President Obama Terrorism White House