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Obama still plans to shut Guantanamo. Can he?

Story highlights

  • President Barack Obama has whittled down the number of detainees from 241 to 107 during his time at the White House
  • Obama has been unable to fulfill his campaign vow to close the prison
  • Obama is keeping his options open, including the possibility of forcing the prison's closure through executive action

(CNN)President Barack Obama declared Thursday that the Paris terror attacks won't stop his plan to close the Guantanamo Bay military prison.

The administration is still planning to soon move ahead with presenting a long-anticipated plan to Congress that would include moving some detainees to the United States.
    "Guantanamo has been an enormous recruitment tool for organizations like ISIL," Obama said during an appearance at an economic conference in the Philippines, using another name for ISIS. "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."
    But the plan to close the facility -- already facing long-shot odds with a resistant Congress -- has become even more knotty in the aftermath of the Paris attacks last week. In just the past few weeks, ISIS has been blamed for taking down a Russian passenger plane, and terrorists affiliated with the group went on a killing rampage in Paris. Fallout from the massacre has included new backlash against Syrian refugees, who some now fear could pose a threat to the U.S. homeland.
    For nearly eight years, Obama has pledged to close the Guantanamo Bay military prison without success. Now, with little more than a year left in his second term, it looks like it will be increasingly difficult to fulfill that promise.
    Obama has whittled down the number of detainees from 241 to 107 during his time at the White House, and he said Thursday he expected that number to get below 100 by early next year. But he has hit roadblock after roadblock -- most often placed by Capitol Hill -- in his effort to clear out the prison.
    The projected closure plan, which has been pending for months, was set to be presented to Congress at some point over the last several weeks, though continued work by the Pentagon on surveying potential U.S. facilities delayed its final release.
    But few in the administration express much confidence that lawmakers will actually give the proposals much consideration, much less pass them before Obama leaves office. So, Obama is keeping his options open, including possible using executive action to force the prison's closure, likely citing his constitutional ability to make decisions about war. Such unilateral action would almost certainly be challenged in the courts.
    So why has it been so hard for him to close Guantanamo?

    Campaign promise

    Guantanamo was established under President George W. Bush as a place to hold alleged terrorists, or enemy combatants, rather than treating them as conventional prisoners of war. Bush himself looked at closing the facility before he left office but didn't do so.
    As early as 2007, Obama, still a U.S. senator from Illinois, used the closure of Guantanamo as a way to criticize the national security policies of Bush.
    Speaking to a crowd in Texas in the summer of 2007, Obama equated closing the facility to the projection of American values.
    "We're going to lead by example -- not just word but by deed," he said then. "That's our vision for the future."
    The argument: Guantanamo Bay was becoming a recruiting tool for terrorists, who viewed the extrajudicial incarceration at the facility, along with abuse on the battlefield, as an embodiment of American disregard for human rights.
    Obama repeated the assertion on the campaign trail across the country, never delving into detail but succinctly telling audiences "we're going to close Guantanamo."
    As he transitioned into office in late 2008, his incoming aides formulated a plan -- with input from outgoing Bush officials -- on how best to close the prison quickly. When Obama entered office in January 2009, the groundwork had already been laid for an executive order closing the facility by transferring detainees to other countries and into the United States.
    Under the order, which Obama signed his first day as president, a review panel would assess the cases of each of the 241 detainees at the facility and recommend either prosecution or transfer.
    Officials said at the time they expected the process to take a year. Reality soon intervened.

    Roadblock after roadblock

    Just four months later, obstacles began to appear.
    An effort to transfer 17 Uighur detainees -- members of a Chinese Muslim minority deemed no threat to the United States -- to northern Virginia collapsed after the region's lawmakers revolted.
    In May, the Democrat-controlled Senate voted overwhelmingly against allowing government funds to close Guantanamo. An administration plan to move detainees to a supermax prison 150 miles south of Chicago met a similar fate in Congress.
    In balking at the transfers, Republican and Democrat lawmakers alike repeatedly cited security fears expressed by their constituents about housing suspected terrorists near their families.
    Legislators later banned the administration from transferring any detainees into the United States in a war spending bill that Obama aides deemed too important to veto.
    But it sacrificed a core facet of the closure plan for those detainees who couldn't be sent home because of instability and who were too dangerous to send elsewhere.
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    And even as Obama sought to sway public opinion on Guantanamo, opponents of the plan grew louder.
    A day after the President delivered a speech at the National Archives defending his strategy -- claiming Guantanamo had "set back the moral authority that is America's strongest currency in the world" -- he was countered by former Vice President Dick Cheney, fresh from the West Wing and eager to defend his own controversial record on national security.
    "I think the President will find, upon reflection, that to bring the worst of the worst terrorists inside the United States would be cause for great danger and regret in the years to come," he told a conservative audience in Washington.
    Amid the setbacks, Obama forged ahead with a plan to bring detainees into the United States for trial. The administration announced in November 2009 that five prisoners accused of plotting the September 11 attacks would be tried in New York City.
    The administration said the move would demonstrate the country's commitment to rule of law. But fierce political opposition got in the way. New York officials objected to what they said were the enormous costs of securing the downtown Manhattan courthouse, and some family members of 9/11 victims said holding the trial so close to ground zero would open painful wounds.
    The United States instead tried the detainees within the military system at Guantanamo -- a process that is still slogging along, beset by challenges from the defense and likely still years away from a resolution.

    Scramble to shutter

    With his pledge to close Guantanamo within a year of taking office out of reach, Obama moved on. Other priorities -- including wrangling votes for his health care law and working to rescue the troubled economy -- soon overcame efforts to persuade lawmakers to close the prison.
    Stalled by Congress, transfers from Guantanamo to other countries slowed from 48 detainees moved out in 2009 to only 17 transferred in 2010 to zero in 2011.
    The issue arose infrequently during the 2012 campaign, other than as an example of an unfulfilled promise.
    But at the beginning of his second term, hunger strikes among detainees at the prison forced the issue back into the spotlight. Obama renewed his commitment to closing the facility as he entered his second term, and transfers began again.
    With new urgency from the administration, transfers to other countries ramped up -- 27 mostly low-level detainees in 2014 and 15 so far this year. Some in the administration have pushed for even quicker reviews and moves.
    But the hang-up over moving detainees to the United States remains. White House officials say there will ultimately be an "irreducible minimum" number of prisoners who can't be transferred because they're deemed too dangerous or their home countries, such as Yemen, are unstable.
    Congress continues to resist any option that involves moving detainees into the United States, most recently in a defense spending bill passed this week that Obama originally vetoed but is now expected to approve. The bill extends the ban on transferring detainees into the United States and puts new restrictions on sending prisoners to Somalia, Yemen, Libya and Syria.
    Even among Obama's aides, there appears little confidence that the new set of recommendations will amount to action in Congress.
    "We've had these legislative obstacles to our efforts to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay in place for some time," Josh Earnest, White House press secretary, said Monday.
    "What we have sought is congressional cooperation to remove those obstacles so we could move forward in a reasonable way consistent with our national security interests," he said. "We haven't gotten it for years."
    Even among Obama and his aides, there appears little confidence that the new set of recommendations will amount to action in Congress.
    "I guarantee you there will be strong resistance," the President said Thursday. "I think in the aftermath of Paris, I think that there is just a very strong tendency for us to get worked up around issues that don't actually make us safer but make for good political soundbites. Whether it's refugees or Guantanamo, those are handy answers particularly for folks who aren't interested in engaging in more serious debate on how do we invest in a long, hard slog of dealing with terrorism."