Facing a potential showdown with Congress, the Pentagon is racing to move dozens of detainees out of Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in coming months before lawmakers can block future transfers and derail President Obama's plan to shutter the U.S. military prison. As a first step, officials plan to send up to 10 prisoners overseas, possibly in June. In all, the Pentagon hopes that 57 inmates who are approved for transfer will be resettled by the end of 2015.
Late last year, a reporter asked President Obama whether the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay will be closed by the end of 2015. He didn't answer directly, but he committed to doing "everything I can to close it."
To that end, there was quite a bit of activity around that time to transfer approved detainees from the prison, reducing Guantanamo's overall population to 122. The Washington Post reports today that the race is on to lower it further before Congress ignores the military's advice and makes further transfers impossible.
An unnamed defense official told the Post, "I am aware of the clock ticking." [See the update below.]
The deadline, such as it is, does not refer to a specific expiration point, so much as it relates to Congress' plans. It's already clear Republican lawmakers intend to prohibit all future transfers, and though such a bill would draw an inevitable veto, things get trickier if Congress adds the policy to the next Pentagon spending bill.
If the administration can move 57 prisoners before this happens, the detainee population will shrink to just 65 individuals. The White House hopes that the arithmetic would then become undeniable, even to GOP lawmakers -- spending millions of dollars on a detention facility that the military wants to close, and which undermines the United States' global credibility, all to lock up 65 people who could easily be moved to secure domestic facilities is ridiculous.
The same article, however, included a tidbit I haven't seen reported anywhere else.
Specifically, the Washington Post's piece said that if Congress freezes the Guantanamo Bay population, White House officials are "exploring options for the unilateral closure of the prison and moving detainees into the United States."
The same article later repeated the exact same point: "White House officials are exploring options for the unilateral closure of the prison."
Well, that would be interesting, wouldn't it? I'm no expert in military criminal justice, but I thought the whole point of the debate in recent years is that the White House doesn't believe it has the authority to act unilaterally, so it's looked for every possible legal and practical opportunity to circumvent unnecessary restrictions.
If the president's legal team is rethinking this assumption, it will make for a rather volatile fight with Congress.
Look for more on this on tonight's show.
Postscript: It's worth emphasizing that for all the talk in Republican circles about respecting the wishes of our military commanders, in this case, U.S. military leaders, including the current chairman of the Joint Chiefs and several of his recent predecessors, have urged lawmakers to end this nonsense and allow the prison to close. At least for now, Congress continues to ignore military leaders' advice.
* Update: I spoke this afternoon with Ian Moss, a spokesperson for Office of the Special Envoy for Guantanamo Closure at the State Department. He responded to the Post's article: "We are aggressively reaching out to a wide variety of governments as we work to reduce the detainee population. Indeed, since 2009, nearly two dozen countries have resettled almost 70 detainees. The support of our friends and allies is critical to achieving our goal of closing Guantanamo.
"Yemeni nationals comprise over half of the detainee population, and the majority of those detainees currently approved for transfer. Over the past eight months, 12 Yemeni nationals have been resettled from Guantanamo to third countries. We are working to identify appropriate transfer locations for every detainee approved for transfer and it may be the case that resettlement to a third country is the best option."