Guantánamo

Obama: Paris doesn’t change determination to close Guantánamo prison

President Barack Obama answers a reporters question during a meeting with Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Manila, Philippines, Thursday, Nov. 19, 2015.
President Barack Obama answers a reporters question during a meeting with Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Manila, Philippines, Thursday, Nov. 19, 2015. ASSOCIATED PRESS

President Barack Obama on Thursday likened opposition to his order to close the Guantánamo prison to the debate over whether to offer sanctuary to Syrian refugees, saying it makes for “good sound political bites” but not sound policy.

“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, Guantánamo has been an enormous recruitment tool for organizations like ISIL,” he said, referring to the Islamic State movement, also known as ISIS.

“It’s part of how they rationalize and justify their demented, sick perpetration of violence on innocent people,” he added.

The White House has no timetable for release of a Defense Department document describing how closure might work. But it involves moving dozens of captives to U.S. military-run detention sites in the United States. The latest draft, according to several people who have read it, makes no recommendation for a relocation site and does not discuss whether Obama has executive authority to unilaterally ignore Congressional restrictions and move captives to U.S. military detention.

Critics of Obama’s commitment to closing the detention center, however, argue that moving the last captives to the United States — effectively setting up “Guantánamo North”— wouldn’t deprive radical Muslim movements of a meaningful recruiting tool.

Wednesday, House Speaker Paul Ryan urged Obama to drop his closure plan. “The administration’s time would be better spent on a plan to defeat ISIS than on one to move terrorist detainees to our homeland,” Ryan said in a statement.

The administration’s time would be better spent on a plan to defeat ISIS than on one to move terrorist detainees to our homeland.

House Speaker Paul Ryan

The Pentagon currently holds 107 captives at the U.S. Navy base in Cuba, 48 of them approved for release to other countries — if the State Department can make security arrangements that satisfy Secretary of Defense Ash Carter.

“We are going to go through meticulously, with Congress, what our options are and why we think this should be closed,” Obama said at a press conference in Manila while attending an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit. Some APEC nations have had citizens detained at Guantánamo, although none have resettled those who can’t return to home countries, particularly Yemen.

At the House Armed Services Committee, GOP chairman Mac Thornberry of Texas said in a statement Wednesday night any Obama administration plan “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.” Meantime, he said, the president should “resist the urge to score points” on something as serious as closing Guantánamo prison.

“I guarantee you there will be strong resistance,” Obama said in Manila, “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.

“And whether it’s refugees or Guantánamo, 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.”

Obama reminded that the Bush administration released the majority of the 780 or so captives who were at one time held at the controversial detention center in southeast Cuba. “We have reduced that population further, and I expect that by early next year we may even have fewer than 100 people at Guantánamo. We are spending millions of dollars per detainee, and it’s not necessary for us to keep our people safe.”

Carol Rosenberg: 305-376-3179, @carolrosenberg

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