Inside Obama’s final push to transfer Guantanamo detainees

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A guard opens the gate at the entrance to Camp VI, a prison used to house detainees at the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, March 5, 2013.  REUTERS/Bob Strong/File Photo - RTX2P2D6

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HARI SREENIVASAN: And in other White House news, according to a New York Times report, the Obama administration has notified Congress it plans to transfer 17 or 18 prisoners from the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, before president-elect Trump takes office.

In all, the military prison has housed nearly 780 detainees. That number was down to 242 by time President Obama took office. Today, there are 59 remaining, including 22 who have been approved for transfer to other countries. That’s if certain security conditions were met there.

After this latest batch of transfers, 41 or 42 prisoners would be left at Guantanamo Bay for Mr. Trump’s administration to handle.

Joining me now for more on this process is Charlie Savage. He’s a Washington correspondent at The New York Times and author of “Power Wars: Inside Obama’s Post-9/11 Presidency.”

Thanks for joining us.

So, who are these batch of prisoners that are being transferred? Why them and why not the rest of them?

CHARLIE SAVAGE, The New York Times: Right.

So, of the men at Guantanamo, not all of them are cleared for transfer. There’s 10 that are facing charges before a military commission, and there’s about just under 30 who the government has not charged with a crime, but officials believe they are still too dangerous to release. And so they continue to be held as wartime detainees, essentially.

And then there are these lists you mentioned of about 22 men. That’s the remnants of what used to be a very long list of people who six agencies looked at and decided could be safely released, as long as they went to a country that could provide certain security assurances, like monitoring them and preventing them from travel and so forth.

In his last sort of second part of his second term, Obama has made a big push to get that list down as close to zero as he can before he leaves office, even if he fails to close the prison.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Now, closing the prison was something the president wanted, but it also had bipartisan support. Why didn’t it happen?

CHARLIE SAVAGE: So, you’re right.

The Bush administration in its second term wanted to close Guantanamo. And in the 2008 presidential election, both Obama and his Republican opponent, John McCain, said that they would close Guantanamo.

So, when Obama came in and said he would close the prison within a year, it looked like it wasn’t a partisan or a controversial policy to be working towards. But the politics shifted under his feet over the course of 2009-2010.

And so, at that point, Congress started imposing restrictions on the transfers of detainees, including eventually banning them and their transfer to the United States for any purpose. And President Obama’s plan, often overlooked, for closing Guantanamo wasn’t to release every detainee who could not be charged with a crime.

There was that group of two or three dozen who the administration itself thought was too dangerous to release, but could not be charged. And his plans, then, to close the prison as to move them to a different prison in the United States, where they would be cheaper to house and where the symbolic sort of notoriety of Guantanamo, the location the Bush administration had used, would go away.

So, once Congress banned him from bringing prisoners into the United States, that plan could not work. And, therefore, basically, he wasn’t going to close it. And the only question was, would the U.S. get rid of the people at least that it didn’t actually want to hold, this long list of detainees approved for transfer?

HARI SREENIVASAN: What about concerns about recidivism?

CHARLIE SAVAGE: The reengagement rate of detainees who were released in the Bush administration is about 30 percent, suspected or confirmed, a little over 30 percent.

And that’s because, during the Bush years, large numbers of detainees were sent home to places like Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia in bulk transfers after President Bush decided to start trying to close the prison.

The Obama administration has pursued a different approach, an individualized approach. It has a process where six national security agencies look at individual detainees and have to agree that that person is releasable. And there’s a lot more planning for where they’re going to go and what kind of sort of reentry into society, monitoring, travel restrictions and so forth they’re going to encounter once they get out.

And that has brought down the recidivism rate for Obama era transfers to about 12 percent, confirmed or suspected.

HARI SREENIVASAN: What do we know about the Trump administration’s plans for Guantanamo Bay?

CHARLIE SAVAGE: President Trump has said he will keep Guantanamo open and that he will bring new detainees there. He famously said he would load it up with some bad dudes.

Obama, of course, was trying to close it and failed, but didn’t bring anyone new there in his entire eight years as president, and chipped away at the detainee population.

So, I think we can safely predict that, sooner or later, in the Trump administration, the United States government will capture a terrorism suspect and bring him to Guantanamo. And he will be the first new prisoner there in quite a long time.

What we don’t know is whether president-elect Trump intends to shut down all transfers of lower-level detainees to get rid of the six-agency review kind of parole board-like process, or whether he will continue that process, just without — not using it very often.

HARI SREENIVASAN: How much does it cost to keep Guantanamo running?

CHARLIE SAVAGE: The operating cost of Guantanamo in 2015 was $450 million.

And so if the Obama administration does succeed in getting roughly 18, plus or minus, detainees out, that would break down to a ratio of about $10 million per detainee per year to house them at Guantanamo.

There are some asterisks to that, because that figure includes the cost of the military commission system as well, which is not cheap at all.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Charlie Savage of The New York Times, thanks so much.

CHARLIE SAVAGE: Thank you.

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