WASHINGTON: The White House has refused to rule out the possibility of US President Barack Obama using an executive action to shut down the Guantanamo Bay prison if Congress continued to oppose his move to do so.
“I’m not going to stand up here and unilaterally take any options off the table when it comes to the president’s use of his executive authority,” said White House spokesman Josh Earnest hours after Republican lawmakers rejected Mr Obama’s proposal to move the inmates to prisons on the mainland US.
On Tuesday, President Obama announced a long-awaited proposal to close the US detention facility at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, arguing that the prison undermines national security and is contrary to American values.
He also said that extremist groups such as the Islamic State use the prison as a “recruiting tool” to foment hatred against the West.
But Republican lawmakers, who control both chambers of the US Congress, have rejected his plan as vague and dangerous.
“Since it includes bringing dangerous terrorists to facilities in US communities, he should know that the bipartisan will of Congress has already been expressed against that proposal,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican.
“It is against the law — and it will stay against the law — to transfer terrorist detainees to American soil. We will not jeopardize our national security over a campaign promise,” said Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan.
Responding to this outright rejection, the White House press secretary said he saw an “emerging trend in Congress that has worsened in just the last few weeks.
Congress is actually refusing to engage. They’re refusing to consider” plans and proposals put forth by the administration.
White House aides, who briefed the media on Tuesday afternoon, rejected the Republican claim that their plan would bring dangerous criminals to the mainland. They pointed out that less than 10 per cent of former Guantanamo detainees have gone back to militant activities.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, however, endorsed Mr Obama’s plan.
“Closing the detention facility at Guantanamo will strengthen our national security and affirm our values and laws,” she said. “It is disappointing that Republicans have worked to prevent the long-overdue closure of the Guantanamo facility.”
Civil liberties groups also have hailed the plan but said it was short of their expectations.
Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said closing the facility would “erase the stain on America’s moral standing at home and abroad”.
But Mr Romero also said that the president’s decision to preserve military commissions to try the suspected terrorists is a mistake.
“The Guantanamo military commissions are an abject failure,” he said. “They have never worked, are not working and will never work.”
Another human rights group, Amnesty International, said in a statement, said it opposed the plan to keep the prisoners in continued detention on the mainland.
“It won’t appease members of Congress who appear bent on making Guantanamo a permanent offshore prison for individuals captured in a global, apparently endless war.
And it won’t end indefinite detention,” Amnesty said.
The Centre for Constitutional Rights, an organisation whose lawyers have represented multiple Guantanamo detainees, said the plan “does not ‘close Guantanamo,’ it merely relocates it to a new ZIP code”.
There are 91 detainees remaining at the facility, compared with more than 200 when President Obama took office. At its peak, the prison held nearly 800 detainees.
The George W. Bush administration transferred more than 500 of them to other countries.
Closing the prison would fulfill a pledge that Mr Obama made in his 2008 election campaign.
Published in Dawn, February 25th, 2016