President Obama will finally close Guantánamo, his chief-of-staff suggests

Obama chief-of-staff Denis McDonough confirmed in an interview Sunday that closing the Guantánamo Bay prison will be a priority.

Brennan Linsley/Reuters
Detainees are seen inside the Camp 6 detention facility at Guantánamo Bay US Naval Base in Cuba in this May 31, 2009 file photo.

It’s been seven years since Barack Obama made one of his first pledges as president – to shut down the Guantánamo Bay prison. Now, it finally might be happening.

Mr. Obama’s chief-of-staff Denis McDonough said in an interview Sunday the commander-in-chief will make good on his promise by the end of his second term.

“The president has said from the beginning of this administration that we will close Gitmo because it’s bad for our national security and because it’s too costly,” Mr. McDonough said on “Fox News Sunday.”

First, Obama will look to Congress to approve his long-awaited plan and iron out the details, he explained. If Congress fails to act, as it did in 2010, the White House will consider another plan of action. There are currently 104 detainees left at the prison.

Two days after his inauguration in 2009, Obama signed an executive order to transfer Guantánamo's remaining detainees and permanently close the facility in Cuba within the year. In 2010, Congress blocked the proposed transfers, curtailing Obama’s ability to meet his deadline.

Currently, Guantánamo prisoners are permitted to be transferred to other countries but not within the US. In order to leave the prison, detainees must have approval from a team comprised of agents from six government departments, and then be signed off by the defense secretary.

When PBS’s Frontline reached out to the Department of Defense in July, spokeswoman Henrietta Levin said the department is committed to closing the facility.

“Unfortunately, this process can be slowed unnecessarily by burdensome legislative provisions,” she said, of a system that could only be adjusted with the approval of Congress.

Since his failed executive order, Obama has repeatedly brought up the issue in his State of the Union addresses. He has alluded to the prison's exorbitant operation costs – more than $440 million each year, or more than $4 million for each of the inmates – as well as the possibility that it’s featured in propaganda for groups like al Qaeda as a recruitment tool.

Guantánamo protesters maintain that the facility does more harm than good, as the prisoners are held without trial, and have long been said to be tortured.

But critics say that once released, Guantánamo's detainees, many suspected to be high-ranking terrorist affiliates, might return to terrorism. Under the Bush administration, about 20 percent of the 532 transferred detainees were confirmed to have returned to crime. As of January of last year, the rate under the Obama administration was five percent.

“There’s no such thing as zero risk,” Ian Moss, the spokesman the envoy in charge of transfers, told Frontline. But, he added, “under this administration, and with the approach we’ve taken, we have had a very, very small percentage of individuals who are confirmed of having re-engaged.”

McDonough did not confirm whether Obama will issue an executive order to achieve Guantánamo’s closure.

“We ought to make sure that we’re in a position to close that facility because it strengthens us when we close it,” he said. “That’s what the president will do. He feels an obligation to his successor to close that, and that’s why we’re going to do it.”

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