The Obama administration is in the “final stages” of drafting a long-awaited plan to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Wednesday.
“That has been something that our national security officials have been working on for quite some time primarily because it is a priority of the president,” Earnest told reporters.
But White House officials declined to say who was drafting the plan or when it would be delivered to Capitol Hill.
President Barack Obama has long sought to close the prison for terrorism suspects at the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba that his predecessor, George W. Bush, opened after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Earnest’s announcement means Obama will try again to make good on a failed campaign promise before his time in office runs out in 18 months.
Obama has called closing Guantanamo a top priority, saying it wastes money and hurts the U.S.’s reputation.
“Guantanamo is not necessary to keep America safe,” Obama said in 2013. “It is expensive. It is inefficient. It hurts us, in terms of our international standing. It lessens cooperation with our allies on counter-terrorism efforts. It is a recruitment tool for extremists. It needs to be closed.”
In one of his first actions as president, Obama issued an executive order that called for the facility to be shuttered within a year. But he faced stiff opposition by lawmakers of both parties on Capitol Hill, in part because of concerns over where detainees would be transferred. He stopped actively pushing for the closure in his first term, drawing criticism from human rights organizations by signing a law that placed restrictions on transferring inmates from the facility.
Obama has said Guantanamo might have been needed after the 2001 terrorists attacks but that that was no longer the situation. He said justice has been served in other terrorism cases, including the attempted bombings in Times Square and on a Detroit-bound plane, in regular courts and prisons across the nation.
Christopher Anders, senior legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington Legislative Office, said Obama’s new plan, though, is the same plan he has been pushing for years - transferring detainees and prosecuting those who could be charged in the military commission system. “The plan hasn’t changed much over the years,” he said.
Earnest also said Obama would veto a defense spending bill currently being negotiated by lawmakers if it includes provisions that would make it harder to close the prison.
The House and Senate are currently working to resolve differences between their versions of the annual National Defense Authorization Act.
The Senate version includes language that could allow the administration to down the prison, though only after Congress’s reviews the White House closure plan. The House version make any attempts to transfer prisoners and close the prison more difficult.
“Given the serious threats America faces, it’s incredible to see this administration threatening to veto a bill that gives our troops a pay raise, strengthens our cybersecurity and imposes greater restrictions on releasing terrorists,” said Cory Fritz, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.
The prison currently houses 116 prisoners. Many have been there for years. Some have been cleared for transfer by the Obama administration but haven’t been transferred, in part because some of them have nowhere to go. But Anders said nearly half the current prisoners are not being transferred because Defense Secretary Ash Carter has not signed off.
About 800 men have been detained there since it began holding prisoners more than a decade ago.