The White House wants to quickly cut the number of detainees at Guantánamo Bay. One man is standing in the way: President Obama’s Defense Secretary, Ash Carter.
Carter and the White House are increasingly at odds about how to whittle down the number of detainees held in Guantánamo Bay, hampering the administration’s push to close the detention center by the end of its term.
The White House believes that Carter is unwilling to be accountable for the transfer of Guantánamo detainees and their conduct post-release, even to the point of defying the president’s policy on the detention facility, a White House source told The Daily Beast.
Shutting down Gitmo remains a glaring, unfinished Obama campaign promise, and its closure goes through Carter’s office. Carter’s signature is needed for the release of 52 of the 116 detainees cleared for leaving the detention facility by several government agencies that have reviewed their files.
Current law bars federal funds from being used to transfer Guantánamo Bay prisoners to American soil, meaning that the administration has to finding foreign countries willing to take the detainees. The 52 cleared detainees have been approved for release through an extensive interagency process, which includes the Pentagon.
But it is Carter’s signature that leads to a detainee’s release. The complaint heard at the Pentagon is Carter and the Defense Department are not moving fast enough for a White House that hopes to have the question of closing the facility answered by the end of its term. So far, Carter has signed off on only a handful of detainees at one time and has waited weeks to act on those cases.
As one defense official explained, Carter “is definitely under pressure… The White House, if it had its way, would like to see more regular signatures.”
There’s even speculation that if the president follows through on his threat to veto the defense budget bill to win changes on detainee policy, he will ask that the law be amended so that the president, not the defense secretary, has the final say on detainee transfers.
Defense officials note that while Congress may be frustrated with Carter, it has also made it harder for Carter to sign off on approved detainees. The restrictions have only grown since the 9/11 attacks, they noted.
“The very people who are criticizing the secretary are making it hard to close Guantánamo Bay,” a second official said.
Closing the detention facility has, of course, been a priority of the president’s since his first day in office, but political realities have so far stymied the administration.
“This is not something the president wants to turn over to his successor,” Lisa Monaco, who serves as a Homeland Security Advisor to President Obama, told a panel last month.
Word of tension between the White House and the Pentagon over detainee transfers have trickled to Congress, where lawmakers are awaiting a promised Guantánamo Bay closure plan.
“The Obama administration is putting pressure on Carter to sign off on releasing some additional detainees. But some of the individuals they’re requesting, Carter doesn’t feel comfortable putting his name on the line, to sign off on them,” said a Senate aide who works on national security issues.
During his confirmation hearing, Carter made it clear to the Senate Armed Services Committee that he would not buckle under pressure. Senator Kelly Ayotte urged Carter to “not succumb to pressure by this administration to increase the pace of transfer from Guantánamo.”
Carter agreed, saying he wouldn’t be pressured.
In June, Carter said he was “not confident” the detention facility would be closed by the end of the administration.
The claim of tension between Carter and the White House is one the administration is quick to deny.
“The President’s entire national security team is working together to fulfill the president’s steadfast commitment to closing the Guantánamo detention facility,” a senior administration official said.
Two weeks ago, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said the administration was in the “final stages of drafting a plan to safely and responsibly close the prison at Guantánamo Bay and to present that plan to Congress.”
Multiple top administration officials repeated that assertion at last month’s Aspen Security Forum. But the plan, for now, remains to be seen. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain—who supports closing the detention center at Guantánamo Bay—expressed skepticism that he may ever see it.
“Six and a half years ago, they told me they were going to come over with a plan. I have not been holding my breath,” McCain told The Daily Beast. “[Former White House counsel] Greg Craig came to my office and said, ‘Senator, I’ll have a plan to you within a month!’ That was 2009.”
Of course, that’s proved easier said than done. There are several issues that have been lingering for years. Perhaps the biggest is: How will the United States hold prisoners stateside, many of whom have never been convicted, indefinitely in an unending war? The existing law of the land bans detainees from coming onto U.S. soil.
Even if that major legal hurdle was eliminated, Guantánamo prisoners would be unlike any other domestic or even war prisoners. In other wars, such prisoners are released when the war ends, but the war on terrorism has no clear end date.
There are also practical considerations the administration must consider. Will a Republican-led Congress change the law to allow detainees to be held in the United States?
If detainees are moved to the United States, will they receive any of the civil rights afforded to other prisoners held in the United States?
Moreover, 43 of the 52 detainees approved for release are Yemeni, and the U.S. does not want to send them back to their home country. The fear is that with no Yemeni government in place to properly monitor released detainees or help them rehabilitate, they could be lured by one of many jihadist groups operating there. State Department officials are searching for alternative countries to take them, on a case-by-case basis, with limited success.
Tensions between the Pentagon and the White House over this issue are a familiar story to administration observers. One reason many believe former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was forced from office was his unwillingness to sign off on the release of detainees at the pace the administration wanted. Carter is Obama’s fourth defense secretary.
The administration assembles “packets” when it is preparing to approve the release of a detainee. A packet consists of the agency decision of transfer, an intelligence backgrounder on the detainee, the circumstances and conditions of their transfer, and the diplomatic and security arrangements that explain where that detainee would go upon release.
There are as many as four packets making their way to Carter’s desk, a defense official said. The official could not say when they will reach his desk or how he will address them.
To transfer all 52 cleared detainees to foreign countries by the end of the Obama administration, one would have to be released every 10 days between now until January 2017.
“We absolutely need to be seeing a significant number of transfers from Guantánamo every month. Every month that goes by without a significant number of people leaving Guantánamo directly undermines the president’s policy, and it is very unfair to the individuals who have been approved for transfer,” Clifford Sloan, the former Special Envoy for Guantánamo Closure at the State Department, told The Daily Beast. “We should promptly transfer all of those approved for transfer, and, once we do that, the entire process of closing Guantánamo will be far more manageable.”
Some defense officials defended Carter’s actions, noting that the cases before him are among the toughest to resolve.
“The easy cases have been taken care of already,” a second defense official explained.
Pentagon officials do not believe the administration will present its closure plan before Congress this week, and lawmakers will spend the next month overseas or in their districts for the summer recess—casting doubt on when exactly the administration will propose its plan.
While highly anticipated, there is nothing to suggest the plan differs from what has been suggested for years—release the approved 52 detainees and move the remaining detainees to one maximum security U.S. prison.
The most commonly suggested facility is Thomson Correctional Center in Illinois, according to congressional and Defense Department sources.
There are still efforts to finesse the last details, the two defense officials said, but would not elaborate on them.
—with additional reporting by Jonathan Alter