Four Things Obama Can Do Today to Help Close Guantanamo

On his second day in office, President Obama signed an executive order to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay within one year. Six years later, the prison is still open. National security leaders agree that Guantanamo harms America’s national security, and the president has repeatedly stated that he wants to close the prison. He has made progress towards that goal, but to get to the finish line, there are some things that President Obama and his administration can do today.

  1. Stop blaming Congress.
    Since President Obama took office, Congress has put up roadblocks to closing Guantanamo, such as prohibiting detainee transfers to the United States and certification and reporting requirements for any transfers overseas. The Obama Administration has objected to these constraints, and has publicly stated that Congress is to blame for its inability to close Guantanamo. Yes, the Congressional restrictions are unhelpful. However, the administration still has significant leeway to take concrete steps to close the prison, some of which are outlined below.
  2. Appoint a replacement for Cliff Sloan, State Department Guantanamo Envoy.
    In 2013, Cliff Sloan and Paul Lewis were appointed Guantanamo envoys for the State and Defense departments, respectively, to oversee and help with closing Guantanamo. Part of Sloan’s job was working with foreign governments to find new homes for cleared Guantanamo detainees waiting for release. But he resigned in December 2014 and his position has been vacant ever since. If the administration is serious about closing Guantanamo, it needs to appoint a replacement as soon as possible. The choice wouldn’t even require Congressional approval.
  3. Ramp up the Periodic Review Board (PRB) hearings.
    In 2011, Obama established the PR B process to evaluate whether it was necessary to continue detaining prisoners who were designated either for indefinite detention or for prosecution but had not been referred for military commission trials. The PRBs are made up of senior officials from the Departments of Defense, Homeland Security, Justice, and State; the Joint Staff, and the Office of Director of National Security. The hearings were supposed to be completed by 2012, but have only evaluated 13 detainees. Fifty-one more detainees are still eligible for review, and if the reviews continue at the current pace, they will not be complete until 2020. To complete the PRB reviews before the end of 2015, they would have to evaluate approximately one detainee per week. The Obama Administration could easily accomplish this by devoting more resources to the PRBs.
  4. Restart transfers of cleared detainees.
    Currently, 57 of the 122 detainees at Guantanamo have been cleared for release by all relevant agencies (including the FBI, Defense Department, and State Department). All of these detainees have been in prison without charge or trial for more than 10 years. The Obama Administration has the flexibility to transfer these detainees to other countries, and it has in the past. The last detainees transferred from Guantanamo were five Yemenis released in January, four to Oman and one to Estonia. Since January, the transfers have ceased completely without explanation. True, Congress has imposed onerous transfer restrictions, and is poised to pass laws that would completely stop transfers, even for detainees who all relevant national security and intelligence agencies have unanimously deemed not a threat. But for the time being, Obama has the authority and ability to cut the prison’s population nearly in half by transferring the cleared detainees home or to third countries.

If President Obama is actually committed to closing Guantanamo, he needs to make sure his administration is making it a priority. Though it was revealed today that the administration plans to release 10 detainees this summer, which would be good, it’s not enough. The tasks above could be accomplished if the administration redoubled its efforts and stopped passing the buck. While none of these steps would shutter the prison completely, they are essential steps to getting there, and ones the president can take right away.

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Published on April 22, 2015

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