President Barack Obama is considering the use of executive power to override a congressional ban on bringing Guantanamo Bay detainees to the United States, which would allow him to achieve a long-desired goal of closing the detention facility, according to senior White House officials.
A senior administration official told The Wall Street Journal
that Obama is "unwavering in his commitment" to closing the prison before he leaves office, and wants to keep all options open on his campaign promise, which he considers part of his presidential legacy.
Should Obama use executive power toward closing the detention facility, which now houses 149 inmates arrested in connection with the United States' war on terrorism, he'll likely face a tough reaction from lawmakers already angered over his use of executive power to bypass the stalled legislative process.
The officials said Obama would prefer a legislative solution for closing the prison, which opened after the 9/11 attacks, but is also planning to take action on his own if that solution doesn't come.
House Republicans are already suing Obama
over accusations that he exceeds the bounds of his constitutional authority. Action on the Cuban prison could "ignite a political firestorm, even if it's the best resolution for the Guantanamo problem," American University law professor Stephen Vladeck told The Journal.
Obama this year has made such executive actions on issues including the minimum wage and gay discrimination, and plans a ruling after the November election on immigration. Action on the prison could lead to further division among lawmakers, with Republicans likely to oppose the plan and Democrats being split, said Vladeck.
The president could have two different options for closing the prison, White House officials say, if Congress extends restrictions on bring detainees to the United States.
He could either veto the National Defense Authorization Act, which includes the ban on the detainee transfers, or he could sign the bill and declare the restrictions as an infringement on his presidential powers.
The prisoner transfer ban has been in place since 2010, when the Obama administration said it wanted to relocate detainees to a Thomson, Illinois, maximum-security prison.
Meanwhile, the administration is trying to cut the Guantanamo population by half by transferring detainees that have been cleared for release. Thursday, the country of Estonia said it would accept one of the detainees, and administration officials said they are working on transferring more prisoners to other countries.
"We are very pleased with the support from our friends and allies, and we are very grateful to them," said Clifford Sloan, the State Department envoy for Guantanamo closure.
However, according to the Obama administration, the center can't be closed altogether unless some of the inmates are sent to prisons on the U.S. mainland.
Obama in May exchanged five of the detainees for American prisoner of war Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl without alerting Congress 30 days in advance, angering lawmakers, especially those who want to keep the prison open.
And most Americans don't want the prison to close. A June Gallup poll said
66 percent of Americans oppose closing Guantanamo and sending its remaining detainees to U.S. prisons.
Since 2002, nearly 800 men have been held at the prison, but most were released during former President George W. Bush's administration. Seventy-nine of the remaining 149 inmates have been approved for transfer, but are still at the prison because of issues involved in releasing them.
Yet another 37 are being held for continued detention without trial, and include men who are considered too dangerous to let go, although there is not enough evidence to bring them to trial.
Ten more of the detainees, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four other co-defendants accused of being behind the Sept. 11 attacks, remain in pretrial hearings.
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