Defense Secretary Ash Carter told reporters on Monday there are detainees at the Guantanamo Bay military prison who are so dangerous that it would not be safe to transfer them outside the care of the United States.
Carter and President Obama have drawn up a plan to move many of the remaining 91 detainees into the custody of foreign governments. Detainees not cleared for transfer overseas—those who Carter describes as too dangerous to go elsewhere—would be moved stateside in an effort to close the detention facility.
Carter made his comment while holding a press briefing at the Pentagon along with Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
A reporter asked Carter if the United States is thinking of transferring the Guantanamo Bay naval base back to the Cuban government, which he denied while drawing a distinction between the naval base and the detention facility.
“The base is separate from the detention facility,” Carter said in response. “The base is in a strategic location. We’ve had it for a long time. It’s important to us, and we intend to hold onto it.”
Carter then turned his attention to the detention center within the naval base, which he said is the specific focus of the Obama administration’ closure plan.
“With respect to the detention facility at [Guantanamo], which is what the president was speaking about last week … there are people in the Guantanamo Bay detention facility whom it is not safe to transfer to any other—they have to stay in U.S. detention,” Carter said. “Safety is the top priority for me, the chairman, and for the president.”
Carter then said that because some detainees are too dangerous to release, there needs to be an alternate facility in the U.S. for these individuals to go if Guantanamo is closed, which is at the heart of Obama’s proposal.
The Pentagon is reportedly looking at send prisoners to either the federal Supermax prison in Florence, Colo., the military prison in Leavenworth, Kansas, or the Naval Consolidated Brig in Charleston, S.C.
One problem for the administration, however, is that it is currently illegal to move Guantanamo detainees to U.S. soil. Carter said at Monday’s briefing that Congress must change the law for the closure plan to go into effect.
“[Obama’s Guantanamo plan] can’t be done unless Congress acts, which means Congress has to support the idea that it would be good to move this facility and the detainees to the United States … it’s good if it can be done, but it can’t be done under current law. The law would have to be changed. That’s the reason we would put the proposal in front of Congress,” Carter said.
This may prove difficult for the administration, as a bipartisan majority in both houses of Congress disapprove of closing Guantanamo and transferring detainees to the U.S.
Carter reaffirmed his support for the president’s plan, citing its fiscal benefits—U.S. officials say it would save the government between $65 million and $85 million per year—and benefits for U.S. military personnel charged with duty at Guantanamo. He said the plan is good “on balance” and that he does not want to pass the Guantanamo issue to the next president and Defense Secretary if possible.
The president has long maintained that Guantanamo should be closed because the detention facility is not in keeping with American values and serves as a recruiting tool for terrorists.
Those who want Guantanamo to remain open argue that the facility is necessary to hold enemy combatants who are members of jihadist groups like al Qaeda to keep them off the battlefield and gather intelligence. They cite the reportedly exceptional treatment detainees receive at the facility, which military leaders have detailed to reporters, as well as experts who say that Guantanamo plays a minimal role in jihadist propaganda.
The recidivism rate for Guantanamo detainees who are released and return to terrorist activity is about 30 percent, according to experts.
A recent example that garnered attention was Ibrahim al Qosi, a former aide to Osama bin Laden who was sent to Guantanamo in 2002 and released 10 years later. Al Qosi resurfaced this month as a senior member of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the terror group’s most dangerous branch.
When asked about al Qosi’s return to jihadist activity at a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing last week, Secretary of State John Kerry lamented that “he’s not supposed to be doing that.”