Some worry Guantánamo detainees could come north as Obama’s term ends

A U.S. trooper stands in the turret of a vehicle with a machine gun, left, as a guard looks out from a tower at the detention facility of Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base in Cuba. President Barack Obama’s quest to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, perhaps by moving some detainees to the United States, has sparked concerns that he’ll try to move the detainees to the United States.
A U.S. trooper stands in the turret of a vehicle with a machine gun, left, as a guard looks out from a tower at the detention facility of Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base in Cuba. President Barack Obama’s quest to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, perhaps by moving some detainees to the United States, has sparked concerns that he’ll try to move the detainees to the United States. AP

When Sen. Tim Scott visited the Guantánamo Bay military prison in Cuba last month, he left with one overarching impression: The U.S. has found and created “the only location on Earth” secure enough to hold enemy combatants and suspected terrorists.

“You walk away realizing that the world’s worst terrorists are housed at a location that is isolated by an ocean, mountains and deserts, and the deserts have old Cuban landmines,” he said. “So the enemy combatants are safer, the soldiers are safer, and anyone who wants to come rescue anybody has to go through those three major barriers.”

For nearly eight years President Barack Obama has pledged to close the Guantánamo Bay facility, which he says costs too much to operate and could be a recruiting tool for jihadists, without success. With little more than a year left in office, some worry that he may use an executive order to get around Congress – a move that could possibly relocate detainees to a naval facility outside Charleston, S.C.

We are spending millions of dollars per detainee, and it’s not necessary for us to keep our people safe.”

President Barack Obama

The Pentagon has scouted the U.S. Naval Consolidated Brig in Hanahan, S.C., as a potential site to transfer the detainees. The facility lies five miles from North Charleston.

The Pentagon also surveyed other domestic sites for “Guantánamo North,” including the Disciplinary Barracks in Fort Leavenworth, Kan., and the country’s highest-security prison, the Federal Correctional Complex in Florence, Colo., which has been dubbed the “Alcatraz of the Rockies.”

Few doubt that the domestic facilities under consideration are capable of securing the detainees, many of whom have never been charged with a crime. But critics worry that having them there could attract sympathizers and create imminent danger by making the nearby communities a target. Charleston is a national tourist destination with a metropolitan population of almost 700,000.

“It is a slap in the face to the people of South Carolina who have sacrificed so much for this country to turn around and say you’re going to put these terrorists in our backyard,” South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley said when the Pentagon announced plans to review the naval brig in August.

Human rights groups also oppose the transfer of detainees to the U.S., but for different reasons.

Groups like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, who have long called the detentions at Guantánamo a violation of international law, said transferring detainees could worsen their existing conditions. Holding them indefinitely, without charge or trial, is the real problem, Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth said in a letter to the president last month. Transferring them to U.S. prisons would just “entrench a system of indefinite detention on U.S. soil that may be used by future administrations,” he wrote.

The long-awaited Pentagon report to Congress presenting a closure plan for Guantánamo was supposed to be released in the second week of November, but has been delayed for more revisions.

Congress passed a $607 billion bipartisan defense policy bill last week that bans moving detainees into the U.S. The White House has said that the president will sign the bill; in previous years, Obama also has signed bills with similar restrictions, but included a statement objecting to those provisions.

“The administration’s time would be better spent on a plan to defeat ISIS than on one to move terrorist detainees to our homeland,” House Speaker Paul Ryan said in a statement on Wednesday, joining critics who say the president has an obligation to drop campaign promises that endanger homeland security.

Any decision to select the Charleston naval brig or another location in the continental U.S. would require a long-shot approval from Congress.

“I am very concerned that the president is moving in the direction of giving us hints that he’s going to create an executive order, which is in no one’s best interest,” Scott said.

The president in this latest announcement is overcookin’ my grits. This is approaching lawless behavior.”

Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C.

The White House has indicated in recent weeks that Obama might use executive action to get around the congressional ban on spending federal money to relocate the detainees.

“We’d like to work with Congress, but if Congress continues to refuse, I wouldn’t rule out the president using every element of his authority to make progress,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters earlier this month.

Bringing Guantánamo detainees to South Carolina would not only be a bad idea - it would also be illegal, S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson said on Wednesday.

In a letter to the president with his counterparts in Kansas and Colorado, he pointed out that a member of Obama’s own administration, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, testified this week that the laws passed in Congress prevent Obama from moving detainees.

“The president’s potential executive order would be unlawful and endanger all South Carolinians,” he said.

Wilson said he would explore all legal options and “use every tool necessary to protect South Carolina from dangerous terrorists currently detained at Guantánamo Bay.” The state attorneys general set a deadline of Dec. 4 for the White House to respond.

The debate over closing Guantánamo took on a new urgency after the Nov. 13 terror attacks in Paris brought national security concerns to the forefront, including backlash at the resettlement of Syrian refugees in the U.S.

Speaking at an economic conference in the Philippines on Thursday, Obama made it clear that the Paris attacks have not changed his mind about closing the prison.

“Guantánamo has been an enormous recruitment tool for organizations like ISIL,” Obama said. “It’s part of how they rationalize and justify their demented, sick perpetration of violence on innocent people. And we can keep the American people safe while shutting down that operation.”

780Number of detainees who have been brought to Guantánamo since January 2002.

Closing the prison was one of Obama’s main campaign promises in 2008, but roadblocks from Congress and other pressing issues forced it down the priority list. At the beginning of his second term in 2013, hunger strikes among the detainees brought the issue back into the public spotlight. The facility was opened in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks as a way to keep suspected terrorists off the battlefield.

Obama has reduced the number of detainees at Guantánamo from 241 to 107 during his time in office. The most recent transfer occurred on Nov. 15, when five Yemeni prisoners were sent to the United Arab Emirates.

Of the 107 remaining, 48 have been approved for release to other countries, if appropriate security measures can be set up and countries found to take them. Forty-nine have been judged too dangerous to release, though they have not been charged with a crime. The other 10 include three who’ve been convicted or pleaded guilty to crimes and six who are facing trial and possible death sentences by a military commission. The final prisoner faces life in prison on charges he was an al Qaida commander.

Vera Bergengruen: 202-383-6036, @verambergen