- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 23, 2016

The White House accused congressional Republicans on Tuesday of refusing to “engage” with President Obama after lawmakers blasted the president’s plan to close the Guantanamo Bay terrorist detention center, the latest in a string of rejections for the lame-duck president.

Hours after Republicans said they wouldn’t entertain Mr. Obama’s proposal to move dozens of suspected terrorists to prisons on the mainland U.S., the president’s spokesman again said the president wouldn’t rule out closing the military prison through executive action.

“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, venting that lawmakers are also ignoring Mr. Obama’s budget proposal and his intention to fill a Supreme Court vacancy. “There is this emerging trend in Congress that has worsened in just the last few weeks. Congress is actually refusing to engage. They’re refusing to consider the specific Gitmo plan.”

Mr. Obama announced his long-anticipated proposal to close the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba with considerable fanfare, saying the prison undermines national security and is contrary to American values.

“For many years, it’s been clear that the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay does not advance our national security,” Mr. Obama said at the White House with Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and Vice President Joseph R. Biden at his side. He said extremist groups such as the Islamic State use the prison as a “recruiting tool” to foment hatred against the West.

Closing the prison would fulfill a high-profile campaign pledge that Mr. Obama made in 2008, and he noted that his time is running out.

“I don’t want to pass this problem on to the next president, whoever it is,” Mr. Obama said.

The Pentagon-authored plan proposes 13 potential sites in the U.S. to hold as many as 60 detainees in maximum-security prisons, but does not identify the facilities. Three of the sites are in Colorado, South Carolina and Kansas.

Congress has repeatedly passed legislation barring the transfer of Guantanamo detainees to the U.S., and lawmakers said they wouldn’t lift those restrictions.

“We’ll review President Obama’s plan,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican. “But since it includes bringing dangerous terrorists to facilities in U.S. communities, he should know that the bipartisan will of Congress has already been expressed against that proposal.”

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, Wisconsin Republican, said Mr. Obama had not convinced Americans that moving the prisoners to the United States was “smart or safe.”

“It is against the law — and it will stay against the law — to transfer terrorist detainees to American soil,” Mr. Ryan said. “We will not jeopardize our national security over a campaign promise.”

With Mr. Obama pressing his case, he also is thrusting the issue into this year’s presidential campaign.

“Not only are we not going to close Guantanamo — when I am president, if we capture a terrorist alive, they are going to Guantanamo, and we are going to find out everything they know,” said Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio.

Mr. Rubio, a U.S. senator from Florida, also said he believes Mr. Obama wants to close the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay. Administration officials say that has never been part of the plan.

White House aides say that less than 10 percent of former Gitmo detainees have gone back to jihadi activities. But on the same day Mr. Obama announced his plan, police in Spain and Morocco said they had arrested four suspected members of a jihadi cell that sought to recruit fighters for the Islamic State group, including a former Guantanamo detainee who once fought with militants in Afghanistan.

Spanish authorities didn’t name the former Gitmo detainee but described him as “a leader who was trained in handling weapons, explosives and in military tactics.” After he was captured in 2002 and held in Guantanamo, he was returned to Spain in 2004, said Interior Minister Jorge Fernandez Diaz.

John Yoo, a former Bush administration Justice Department official who helped to authorize the Guantanamo prison and “enhanced interrogation’ of detainees, said Congress “has already made clear” that it won’t allow the administration to spend money on the transfer of detainees to the U.S.

If the president tried to circumvent Congress through executive action, Mr. Yoo said, “This would actually be the worst of his violations of the Constitution.”

“No president since Lincoln at the beginning of the Civil War has ever claimed any right to override Congress‘ fundamental power of the purse,” Mr. Yoo said. “He likes to talk about ‘red lines,’ but that’s a constitutional red line that every president has honored.”

As for the argument that Gitmo is a terrorist recruiting tool, Mr. Yoo said there “doesn’t seem to be any evidence of it.”

“The people who join ISIS, al Qaeda or any of these Islamic terrorist groups are going to attack us,” he said. “I don’t think Guantanamo Bay is at the top of their list of why they’re so hostile. They’re motivated by this centuries-long sense of grievance against the West and the feeling that their civilization is in decline.”

Civil liberties groups hailed the president’s push to close the prison. 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.”

Mr. Romero also praised the president’s call to prosecute detainees in federal court but said his decision to preserve military commissions to try the suspected terrorists is a mistake.

“The Guantanamo military commissions are an abject failure,” Mr. Romero said. “They have never worked, are not working and will never work, even with President Obama’s well-intentioned reforms.”

The president said trials in federal court should be the preferred option for detainees, who include 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

“Fifteen years after the worst terrorist attack in American history — we’re still having to defend the existence of a facility and a process where not a single verdict has been reached in those attacks — not a single one,” Mr. Obama said.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, an Arizona Republican who agreed with Mr. Obama during their 2008 presidential contest on the need to close the prison, said the plan to close Gitmo isn’t responsible.

“What we received today is a vague menu of options, not a credible plan for closing Guantanamo, let alone a coherent policy to deal with future terrorist detainees,” Mr. McCain said in a statement. “After years of rhetoric, the president has still yet to say how and where he will house both current and future detainees, including those his administration has deemed as too dangerous to release.”

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, said the president offered a “strong, detailed plan.”

“The reality is Guantanamo hurts, rather than advances, our efforts to keep America safe and combat terrorism abroad,” Mrs. Pelosi said. “Closing the detention facility at Guantanamo will strengthen our national security and affirm our values and laws. It is disappointing that Republicans have worked to prevent the long-overdue closure of the Guantanamo facility.”

Even as he signed annual defense spending bills, Mr. Obama has repeatedly issued statements saying he reserves the right to transfer terrorism suspects if it’s in the national security interest.

There are 91 detainees remaining at the facility, compared with more than 200 when Mr. 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.

Transitioning to a U.S. detention facility would entail one-time costs of $290 million to $475 million, but within three to five years, the lower operating cost of a U.S. facility with fewer detainees could fully offset the transition costs, according to the plan released by the Pentagon.

Officials said they cannot accurately estimate the cost of building a prison to hold the detainees, in part because Congress has forbidden the administration from spending money on such preparations.

The president said he intends to move ahead with plans to transfer 35 of the remaining detainees to other countries. He also said some of the other detainees should be tried in federal court rather than before military tribunals.

The cases of prosecuting in court other terrorists such as Richard Reid, the attempted “shoe bomber,” have worked out “just fine,” he said.

“It proves that we can both prosecute terrorists and protect the American people,” Mr. Obama said. “We’re already holding a bunch of really dangerous terrorists here in the United States because we’ve thrown the book at them. We’ve managed it just fine.”

Fifteen years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the president said, “This is about closing a chapter in our history.”

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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