Finally, Good News About Guantanamo

Yesterday a HuffPost/YouGov poll indicated that a majority of Americans do not believe the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay will be shut down by the end of President Obama’s term.

Their pessimism is understandable. For years President Obama failed to take the steps necessary to make good on his promise to shut it down, and in May he said he erred by not closing it immediately. At the same time, Congress has repeatedly put up barriers to make the task more difficult. President Obama and Congress have failed to close the prison even though numerous retired military leaders and national security professionals say its existence weakens U.S. national security.

Here’s the good news: the same poll says that a majority of Americans don’t oppose transferring Guantanamo detainees serving life sentences to either the United States or another country if the prison can be closed. Fifty-one percent think they should be transferred to the United States.

Congress might be changing its tune as well. Senator John McCain, chair of the armed services committee, said that he’ll push his colleagues to accept provisions in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA)—the annual defense bill that deals with Guantanamo policy—to help close the prison if the administration sends a comprehensive plan. According to Lisa Monaco, the president’s chief counterterrorism advisor, this plan is forthcoming.

It reportedly includes a process to send the 52 detainees cleared for transfer either to their home countries or to third countries if their home countries are too dangerous. The remaining detainees would be brought to the United States for detention or trial. Those whom the government is willing to try would be prosecuted in either military commissions or federal courts.

While the poll didn’t ask about prisoners being detained under the Law of War, it indicates the American people are willing to accept transfers from Guantanamo. This suggests that as long as the administration and Congress can agree to a plan and make the necessary arrangements in the NDAA, they would have the public’s support.

But the administration doesn’t need to wait until the NDAA is finalized and Congress starts cooperating. As the New York Times editorial board noted this morning, President Obama and Secretary of Defense Ash Carter can easily authorize the transfer of the 52 cleared detainees. And as Human Rights First has long argued, the Periodic Review Board process, by which detainees can be cleared, must be sped up.

President Obama should take this opportunity to fulfill his promise to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay. If Congress forbids transfers in their final version of the NDAA, he should veto the bill. With the majority of Americans behind him, he can finally empty the prison and put an end to more than 13 years of shame.

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Published on July 30, 2015

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