Defense Department file photo

Obama Administration Delays Plan to Close Guantanamo While Searching for Domestic Alternative

As weeks slip away, Pentagon officials say they’re only on ‘step one’ of a crucial survey of alternate locations for the detainees.

The White House plan to close the military prison in Guantanamo Bay — once described by the administration as imminent — now looks like it’s not coming anytime soon.

A survey meant to determine which U.S. military or civilian prisons might receive the war-on-terror detainees is only at “step one,” according to a senior Pentagon official, who offered fresh details about the weeks-old assessment effort.

A White House official, speaking on background because the drafting is ongoing, said, “We've been diligently working on a plan to close Guantanamo. The site surveys conducted by the Defense Department are a key component of the plan.”

Six weeks ago, the administration said it was in the “final stages” of drafting the plan, which is a crucial part of a potential deal with Congress to close the detention facility. Some reports indicated the White House could send the plan to Capitol Hill as soon as this week.

Now, the official said, “We want to ensure our plan to safely and responsibly close Guantanamo has all bases covered. We don’t have a timeline on when the plan will be delivered to Congress.”

But the delay over the survey will complicate the already-difficult negotiations over Guantanamo as Congress returns this week to hammer out the annual defense authorization bill.

The Inventory

Fresh off recent Defense Department visits to Fort Leavenworth in Kansas and the Naval Consolidated Brig in Charleston, S.C. — which were met with early cries of “not in my backyard” from lawmakers and state representatives — the Pentagon official gave Defense One new details about the survey.

“All the sites, certainly within the Department of Defense, that we could get to a maximum security standard we would consider,” the official said, adding that there’s no final list yet. “There’s an inventory, and we’re going through the inventory to narrow down probable, good locations.”

That inventory includes the U.S. military’s five regional prisons: Leavenworth and Charleston; the Naval Consolidated Brigs in Chesapeake, Va., and Miramar, Calif.; and the Northwest Regional Correctional Facility at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Tacoma, Wash., the official said. No additional trips are scheduled at this time.

The Defense Department has also asked the Justice Department, which houses the Bureau of Prisons, to come up with preliminary sites that fit its requirements, working off civilian facilities that were also examined early in President Obama’s first term. “BOP and DOJ are still looking through what they have,” the Pentagon official said. Justice Department spokesman Patrick Rodenbush declined to comment.

Until recently, a civilian prison — Thomson Correctional Center in Illinois — was considered the best bet. Of the major changes during the administration’s six-year effort to close Guantanamo, the Defense Department official said, “The big one was Thomson.”

Another site in earlier studies was the “supermax” in Florence, Colo. It already holds one former Gitmo detainee who was transferred to New York for trial and convicted. “That complex makes sense to go see,” the official said.

On the site surveys, a team of Defense Department engineers, military service representatives and correctional experts examine the facilities to determine what modifications may be necessary to prepare a site for high-level detainees – and the troops that would watch over them.

“Before I was going to buy tickets and we’re gonna go look at locks on doors and things, there was a lot of work to do here … to look and say, ‘We have a brig at Miramar but could we even consider it? Does it have enough space? What would be displaced by doing this? Does it have a place for troops to live?’” the Pentagon official said. “A big piece for me is any place we go, we’re looking at how do we treat the detainees humanely inside the walls, and how do we make sure nothing gets inside or outside those walls?”

“We’re still at step one of what’s available and what would it take to modify it to be able to take on this mission,” the official said.

Feeling the Pressure

But the administration may be stepping too slowly. Obama’s last, best chance to work with Congress to close Guantanamo is through the fiscal 2016 defense bills on its docket this fall.

“I definitely feel the pressure of the congressional calendar and from my bosses. There is a desire to have a compelling, accurate plan put out,” the official said. “I’m being as deliberate as they’ll let me be … so we don’t have to go back out, too — that would be disastrous — or we don’t give a plan over to the secretary, to the president, or to the Armed Services Committee that they don’t find useful.”

“I’m not sure how that tension is going to resolve itself … at some point my boss might say, ‘You’ve done enough and give me what you’ve got,’” the official said. “We could look at the list and say, ‘None of these are going to work for whatever reason,’ then we go with the data that we have … and we assume some risk in the analysis, and ultimately in the decision making.”

It’s a marked shift from the administration’s initial reluctance to provide Congress with a plan, a requirement it called “unnecessary and overly restrictive.”

“It definitely is onerous – but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong,” the official laughed, saying the administration determined, “‘If it gets us to a place where we can all succeed … get on the airplane [to do site visits]; it’s not that onerous.’"

All of these sites have been studied in the past as part of a push to fulfill the order Obama gave on his first day in office to close Guantanamo. But Congress has passed legislation that prevents transfers to the U.S. and the modification or construction of facilities here to hold Guantanamo detainees, in addition to restrictions that make it more difficult to transfer them to other countries.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., who supports closing the facility, is lobbying to preserve a provision in the NDAA that could lift the ban on moving detainees to the U.S. and give Obama the authority to close the prison – if lawmakers approve the plan.

Of the 116 detainees remaining at Guantanamo, 52 have been cleared for transfer to other countries. The administration has continued to chip away at the number that would need to be moved to the U.S. through these transfers — but the plodding pace is a point of tension between the Pentagon, Congress, State Department and White House.

“We could be in a position to move a significant number by the end of the year,” a State Department official recently told Defense One on background, but added, “I’ll put it this way: for anybody in the administration who is a proponent of the policy [of closing Guantanamo], of course there is frustration that we are not further along.”

Related: Beyond Guantanamo

Many who would be transferred from Cuba to the U.S. have never been charged, and a number of their cases may never go to trial.

The administration’s goal is to transfer as many as possible to get to an “irreducible minimum,” which could range from several dozen to more than 50. They would be moved to the U.S., put into indefinite detention and held by the Defense Department as law of war enemy combatants under the decade-old authorizations for the use of military force that serve as the legal foundation for the war on terror — same as they are at Guantanamo, leading critics and opponents alike to refer to the potential U.S. site as “Guantanamo North.”

Last Tuesday, Defense Secretary Ash Carter indicated tepid support for moving Guantanamo detainees to a U.S. facility. “Some of the people who are there at Guantanamo Bay have to be detained indefinitely ... if they’re not locked up in Guantanamo Bay they need to be locked up somewhere, so we are looking at places in the United States,” he said. “If they're detained at Guantanamo, fine. I would prefer to find a different place for them.”

Not In My Backyard

Assembling a list of suitable prisons is one thing; persuading the member of Congress who represents a site to accept Guantanamo prisoners is another.

Rep. Scott Peters, D-Calif., whose district contains Miramar, told Defense One in a statement he wouldn’t support using the facility. “The prison at Guantanamo Bay is literally crumbling, and it costs almost $3 million per prisoner per year,” he said. “I supported giving our military commanders the flexibility to come up with a plan for moving prisoners from Guantanamo Bay, only if the proposed new location is a maximum security facility in a remote prison. I would oppose moving terrorists to the Miramar Brig; it does not fit that criteria.”

The offices of Sens. Cory Gardner, R-Colo.; Michael Bennet, D-Colo.; Patty Murray, D-Wash.; Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.; Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.; and Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., did not respond to requests for comment on whether they would support transfers from Guantanamo to their states.

The offices of Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, both Virginia Democrats, said they hadn’t been contacted about any potential consideration of the Chesapeake brig, and declined to comment on whether they would support moving detainees there.

“They are representing their states and their states’ interests, that is what they’re supposed to do,” the senior Defense Department official said of these responses. “I appreciate knowing those concerns; they’re factors.”

Still, the official pointed to the difficulty of balancing those concerns with requests from lawmakers for the information they need to make what could be the final decision on Guantanamo. "This is kind of my job, to be able to go look at a facility and take things off the table.”

"We’re not at a decision point. No decision has been made. I’m going out with a team of engineers with slide rulers and calculators to measure things and then put numbers to it,” the official said, quipping, “It’d be great if a state offered.”