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Supporters Urge Obama To Take Executive Action To Close Guantanamo


Before this week is over, the Obama administration is expected to send Congress a long promised plan to close the controversial Guantanamo Bay detention center. It will likely be dead on arrival. And that's why some of President Obama's supporters want him to close Guantanamo on his own, and the White House is not ruling that out. NPR's David Welna reports.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell taunted President Obama yesterday just before the Senate overwhelmingly passed yet another bill blocking the commander in chief from moving Guantanamo detainees to the U.S.


MITCHELL MCCONNELL: This bill will include restrictions on bringing terrorists into the United States, and he's going to sign it.

WELNA: Three weeks ago, the president vetoed an earlier version of that defense bill. At the time, he cited its restrictions on Guantanamo identical to those in the bill passed yesterday as grounds for his veto.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: This legislation specifically impedes our ability to cause Guantanamo in a way that I have repeatedly argued is counterproductive to our efforts to defeat terrorism around the world.

WELNA: And yet at the White House yesterday, spokesman Josh Earnest signaled a retreat. He said because the defense bill has a lot of good things in it and issues over its funding have been resolved, he expected Obama to sign it.


JOSH EARNEST: But that certainly is not a change - reflect a change in our position or the intensity of our position about the need to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay and the need for Congress to actually cooperate with us in doing so.

WELNA: The White House has been counting on John McCain, the influential Republican chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, to help sell a Guantanamo closure plan to Congress. Asked about that yesterday, McCain said he did not want to waste the president's time.


JOHN MCCAIN: I do not want to see Guantanamo kept open. It costs something like $2.3 million per inmate. And it is a symbol. It is a symbol. But I've always said we got to have a plan, and this - what they're sending over is not a plan.

WELNA: That's because McCain doubts the plan will specify where the remaining 112 Guantanamo detainees would be held in the U.S. Given the bleak prospects for congressional cooperation, some of the president's former advisers are calling on him to go it alone. Until this year, Cliff Sloan had been Obama's special envoy for closing Guantanamo.

CLIFF SLOAN: The president has tried to work with Congress, but if Congress is unable or unwilling to remove this restriction that puts handcuffs on a core executive function, on a core commander in chief function, he has the authority to move on his own. And in my view, he should use it.

WELNA: Asked yesterday whether the president would indeed take executive action to close Guantanamo, spokesman Earnest refused to rule it out.


EARNEST: Certainly on a range of issues I'm going to protect the ability of the president to use his authority to move the country in the direction that he believes it should be headed and particularly when it comes an issue like the prison - closing the prison in Guantanamo Bay.

WELNA: Outrage over possible unilateral presidential action is already being heard on Capitol Hill. Sen. Pat Roberts is a Kansas Republican.

PAT ROBERTS: Why do we even have a Congress if the president can issue an executive order on anything, and in this particular case, endanger our national security? Then what are we even doing here?

WELNA: Human rights advocates for their part doubt that moving Guantanamo detainees to the U.S. will end their indefinite detention. Omer Fisher is with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, of which the U.S. is a member.

OMER FISHER: We certainly would not like to see Guantanamo detainees transferred somewhere else, U.S. soil or anywhere else, for that matter, where they would still be detained indefinitely without trial.

WELNA: With barely 14 months left in office, whatever President Obama chooses to do to make good on his pledge to close Guantanamo, he'll have to do it soon. David Welna, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.