Brennan Linsley, Associated Press
WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama is pushing to overcome obstacles to closing the Guantanamo Bay prison, 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 defense 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.
Obama has wanted to close Guantanamo since coming to office, but restrictions imposed by Congress have slowed movement out of the prison to a virtual standstill. The White House effort to lighten those barriers 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, R-N.H., who along with Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., 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 Defense 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.
The intelligence community seems to agree. In a letter to Congress last week, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper listed examples of al-Qaida citing Guantanamo to justify its activities.
"Closing the Guantanamo Bay detention facility would deprive al-Qaida's leaders of the ability to use the alleged ongoing mistreatment of detainees to further their global jihadist narrative," Clapper wrote.
Purely from an economic point of view, the administration says Guantanamo is too costly. Defense 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 nearly six months since the speech, but administration officials say he presses Hagel and 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.
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