WASHINGTON, D.C. — A renewed push by the White House to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, has been bogged down by an internal disagreement over its most controversial provision — where to house detainees who will be brought to the United States for trial or indefinite detention, according to U.S. officials.
The White House had intended to provide lawmakers with a new road map for shuttering the facility — a top priority for President Barack Obama’s remaining time in office — before lawmakers went on their August recess.
As part of the plan, the administration had considered sending some of the 116 detainees remaining at the prison to either a top-security prison in Illinois or a naval facility in Charleston, S.C.
But during a recent video teleconference among top administration officials, Scott Ferber, senior counsel to the deputy attorney general, said the Justice Department could not support the use of the federal prison in Thomson, Ill., according to the officials, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
Ferber said the Justice Department had made a public commitment in 2012 when it purchased the facility from the state of Illinois that it would not relocate detainees to Thomson. Former Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. told the Senate Judiciary Committee: “We will not move people from Guantanamo, regardless of the state of the law, to Thomson. That is my pledge as attorney general.”
Holder’s commitment, made during sworn testimony, was apparently overlooked by officials when the most recent plan was drawn up.
Thomson is no longer being considered, and the White House is again looking at other federal facilities, officials said.
“Funding for Thomson prison was approved based on the understanding that no detainees from Guantanamo would be held there, and therefore, Thomson is not part of those discussions,” a senior administration official said.
The last-minute dispute is another sign of the many difficulties plaguing the White House attempt to make good on Obama’s promise to close the military detention facility before he leaves office in 2017.
Even if officials can settle on a site, the prospect of bringing any detainees to the U.S. mainland — either for prosecution in military commissions or indefinite detention without trial under the laws of war — remains radioactive for many in Congress. Lawmakers have argued that no place in the United States can offer the same security as Guantanamo. The administration has countered that the Bureau of Prisons holds many dangerous terrorists who were convicted in federal court.
For months, administration officials have been racing to assemble a plan that could win support in the Senate, where Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the Republican chairman of the Armed Services Committee, has voiced tentative support for closing the facility — if he receives a detailed proposal for how the administration would mitigate security risks in doing so.
“We want to continue to work with Sen. McCain and members of Congress to safely and responsibly close the facility,” said Myles B. Caggins III, a White House spokesman.
But since Obama first announced his goal of shutting Guantanamo in 2009, the White House has faced unrelenting opposition in Congress to trying or holding prisoners on the U.S. mainland. Current U.S. law prohibits the administration from spending money to move detainees to the United States.
Under a bill being considered in Congress, lawmakers could vote on the closure plan, and if approved, it would lift restrictions on bringing prisoners to the United States.
Officials don’t know exactly how many prisoners would need to be brought here, but this “irreducible minimum,” as the White House calls the number, is believed to be in the dozens.
It is not the first time that plans to house prisoners at Thomson have created controversy. In 2009, a proposal surfaced for the federal government to buy the prison and relocate Guantanamo detainees there. Officials had planned to modify the facility, but Republican lawmakers from that state and GOP gubernatorial candidates criticized the plan.
The 1,600-cell prison currently only holds 79 prisoners, according to the Bureau of Prisons.
Justice Department officials said they were surprised to learn that Thomson was being considered.
A spokeswoman for Sen. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., said he remained opposed to moving Guantanamo detainees to Thomson.
But U.S. officials say the Illinois prison is not the only option. Another site that officials have been discussing is the Consolidated Naval Brig in Charleston, where terrorism suspects have been held in the past.
That location also faces senatorial objections.
“If true, I would not support moving Guantanamo Bay detainees to Charleston, S.C.,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham, R-S.C., said in a statement. “If the detainees need to be moved, they must be moved to a maximum security location in a remote area far from heavily populated areas with vital infrastructure. Charleston does not meet that criteria.”
Lawmakers, including McCain, are also seeking assurances that the detainees won’t be granted additional legal rights once they are moved to the United States.
Ten detainees are facing military commission charges, less than a tenth of the current population.
“The Department of Defense is leading an effort to identify sites in the United States capable of securely and humanely holding Guantanamo Bay detainees,” another senior administration official said. “That work is ongoing.”
At the same time, the administration has struggled to clear a backlog of 52 detainees waiting to be transferred home or to third countries. By law, each transfer must be approved by the defense secretary, who in turn is required to provide assurances to Congress that security risks associated with releasing prisoners will be mitigated.
White House pressure to approve transfers more quickly created friction with then-Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, which contributed to his early resignation last year. Since he took over in February, Hagel’s successor, Ashton B. Carter, has approved the resettlement of six inmates in Oman. That transfer was the second part of a larger deal that had been in the works for over a year to resettle 10 Yemeni citizens in the Persian Gulf sultanate.
Carter also recently approved the transfer of another detainee who has yet to be released, officials said. They said a deal was reached two years ago with the country that has agreed to accept that detainee.
In a July meeting of Obama’s top national security officials, Carter also indicated he was inclined to transfer Shaker Aamer, a Saudi citizen and former British resident.
The British government has repeatedly asked the White House to send Aamer back to the United Kingdom. He has been held at Guantanamo for more than 13 years and was first cleared for release in 2007.
Officials say that Carter wanted to take a close look at transfer plans when he took over at the Pentagon and has posed detailed questions about the resettlement of detainees and the steps that host countries can take to ensure they don’t pose a risk in the future. They deny that the Pentagon is dragging its feet in approving the transfers.
“Secretary Carter is supportive of the administration’s overall plan to close Gitmo; he knows it takes working both ends of the problem set,” a senior Defense Department official said.
The official noted that Carter had approved plans to transfer detainees and that “he’s working the longer-term plan for an alternative detention facility for those detainees we know can’t be transferred or released.”
Julie Tate contributed to this report.
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