The truth about closing Gitmo

Updated 1:34 PM EST, Thu February 25, 2016

Story highlights

Juliette Kayyem: Gitmo needs to close; it's bad fiscally and bad for U.S. security

Obama's plan before Congress for closing it is unlikely to pass

Editor’s Note: CNN national security analyst Juliette Kayyem is a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, a former assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in the Obama administration, and founder of Kayyem Solutions, a security consulting firm. She is the host of the “Security Mom” podcast and author of a forthcoming book, “Security Mom: An Unclassified Guide to Protecting Our Homeland and Your Home.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

(CNN) —  

President Obama has, at last, provided details on his plan to fulfill a nearly decade-old promise to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center in Cuba.

Putting an exit strategy plan squarely before Congress – which has previously prohibited Guantanamo Bay detainees from being transferred to the United States – the President is making one last attempt to fulfill a promise first made on the campaign trail. Few believe that Congress will take him up on the plan, with Republicans, and even some Democrats, saying the proposal to move a few dozen detainees to facilities in United States is a bad idea.

The reasons that Congress is wrong on this issue are well-known: From a security perspective, it is a rallying cry for our enemies, a recruitment tool for terrorists and an embarrassment of our ideals. From a fiscal perspective it makes no sense – it is egregiously expensive compared to civilian prisons in the United States.

As someone who has been in homeland security and counterterrorism for several decades now, I believe that Guantanamo’s purpose has run its course. For a brief period in 2002, maybe it made sense to take captives from Afghanistan to Guantanamo Bay until their status could be determined, but that time has long since passed.

And yet, with such an obviously uphill battle, why would the administration rekindle a fight that it is likely to lose?

Some have suggested that the President could simply close Gitmo by issuing an executive order. Unfortunately that would place him squarely against a congressional statute prohibiting the movement of detainees to the United States.

But in a way these criticisms miss the bigger picture. Whether Congress passes the plan or not is almost beside the point. The administration has been in the process of closing Gitmo almost from the moment Obama took office, using the slow drip of bureaucratic processes.

The Defense Department, which had too often been recalcitrant about dealing with an exit strategy, was forced to start sifting through the details and options available for detainees. The State Department started working on plans to move some detainees to third countries, an effort that took far too long. The Justice Department started to work on legal rules regarding detainees and the rights that ought to be afforded them depending on their ultimate status.

Together, these bureaucratic initiatives have shifted Gitmo from a problem that seemed insurmountable – with hundreds of detainees and no end in sight – to one that seems manageable, with just 91 detainees and no plans for new arrivals.

A new Republican president who wanted to stop this drawdown would be forced to confront the tide of bureaucratic change that began when Obama took office. It wouldn’t be impossible, but it would take a huge effort.

And if the next president is either Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders, both of whom have expressed a commitment to close it, Obama will be handing his successor a facility that is far easier to shutter than when he took office. Ninety-one detainees is not jaw-dropping – it’s not even a show stopper. It is manageable.

Guantanamo Bay is the last remaining vestige of a philosophy of counterterrorism that justified any activity – war, torture, detention – in the name of protecting America. The plan before Congress is simply a final signal of the momentum that has built toward its closure throughout Obama’s administration. Whether it passes or not, Obama’s steady hand and consistent bureaucratic pressure have turned Guantanamo from a rallying cry for terrorists to something far less powerful.

And that is something for which we should all be thankful.

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