A Pentagon team is planning to visit approximately a “handful” of additional locations in its search for a site on the mainland to house Guantánamo Bay detainees, risking the wrath of lawmakers wary of having terrorism suspects shipped to their backyards.
The Defense Department is keeping the new potential sites under wraps, cautioning that the list is not final. Revealing the locations could spark a backlash similar to the first round of visits to military prisons in Kansas and South Carolina.
The Pentagon on Wednesday said the new sites would be military and non-military, and that surveyors were also looking for a site where military commissions for the detainees could be held.
The trips will help inform the Pentagon’s plan — requested by Congress — for closing the prison facility, something that President Obama had promised to do during his first run for the White House in 2008.
But while the Pentagon is making progress on its plan, officials from across the administration acknowledge that closing the prison will be a difficult endeavor, and that they're not sure Obama has the political will — or the support on Capitol Hill — to make it happen.
Defense officials encountered fierce opposition when touring Fort Leavenworth, Kan., and the Naval Consolidated Brig in Charleston, S.C., with protests coming from the state’s Republican governors, senators and lawmakers.
Even Defense Secretary Ashton Carter — whose signature is required for the transfer of every detainee from Guantánamo — seemed to hedge this week when discussing the possibility of closing the facility.
"It would be good if possible, to close Guantánamo Bay. If it can be done safely," Carter told troops on Tuesday. "It would be a nice thing to do and an important thing to do if we can do it, but we got to be realistic about the people who are in Guantánamo Bay. They're there for a reason.”
Republican opponents in Congress are working to ensure that the effort to close Guantánamo never gets off the ground.
Rep. Jackie Walorski (R-Ind.), who added more restrictions on Guantánamo transfers in the House's 2016 defense policy bill, warned Carter in a letter that she would do “everything in her power” to keep the facility open.
"It just seems like [officials] are under a rush to complete the president's political promise, and common sense isn't weighing into any of these equations," Walorski told The Hill in an interview.
"We're talking about sending high-risk prisoners to military installations to open up even more vulnerability [for service members], or the U.S. prison system which has enough nightmare situations on their own," she said.
Although the opposition to closing the prison has come mainly from Republicans, it's not clear whether the Pentagon would fare any better by considering sites in blue states.
Sen. Dick Durbin (Ill.), the Senate’s No. 2 Democrat, had initially voiced support for a plan to transfer the detainees to a prison in Illinois, Obama’s home state. But after an outcry, he and fellow Illinois Sen. Mark Kirk (R) in 2011 agreed to fund the replacement prison only if the administration pledged not to move detainees to Illinois.
“The key question for Americans is whether they believe cold-blooded terrorists like the 9/11 mastermind should be detained and interrogated at a remote and secure military base or in their local community," said Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), a vocal advocate of keeping Guantanamo open, in a statement to The Hill.
"By and large, Americans don't support having these terrorists brought back to the homeland," Walorski added.
Even if a plan survived Congress, closing Guantánamo would likely come with a financial cost.
The Pentagon’s assessment will review the costs of housing the detainees in the United States and what modifications to facilities would be needed.
A 2012 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report listed only three other military sites besides from Fort Leavenworth and the Charleston brig that would be suitable for the detainees.
Although two of them fall in areas mostly represented by Democrats, their locations in densely populated areas could present a problem.
The third site identified by the GAO — the Naval Consolidated Brig in Chesapeake, Va. — is in a remote location away from population centers, which would be a big plus for the administration.
All of the Pentagon’s planning could be for naught, given that Congress has yet to lift a ban on bringing Guantánamo detainees to the U.S.
A provision from Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in the Senate’s 2016 defense policy bill would lift that ban if the Pentagon submits a plan approved by Congress, but the bill still needs to be hashed out in conference with the House’s version, which contains tougher restrictions from Walorski.
"We're doing everything we can from our position of not being on the conference committee," Walorski said. "It's a little hard to predict what's going to happen when there still is no articulated plan from the administration."
Ayotte, a conferee, is firmly opposed to bringing detainees to the U.S., despite being a close ally of McCain.
"Closing Guantanamo, moving the detainees to the U.S., and creating a ‘Gitmo North’ will not deprive Islamist terrorists of a propaganda tool," Ayotte said.
"Terrorists will simply update their propaganda talking points, and all we will have accomplished is to make a local community in the United States much less safe.”
Nonetheless, the Pentagon is working to finish its plan and send it to lawmakers sometime after they return from recess next week.
An Obama administration official told The Hill that the intention is to make the plan public as much as possible when it is complete.
One official characterized the issue as a game of "political hot potato” where no one wants to advocate too strongly for bringing terrorism suspects to U.S. soil, or take the blame if the plan fails.
Carter insists he shares the president's goal of closing the facility, but says it will be "tricky."
"Some of the people who are there at Guantánamo Bay have to be detained indefinitely, OK? They just got to be locked up," he said.
"If they're detained at Guantánamo, fine, I would prefer to find a different place for them,” he added. "So we'll try to come up with a plan and work with Congress to see if we can do that or not."