Bloomberg View: Obama should act alone on closing Guantanamo Bay

In his final news conference of 2015, President Barack Obama pledged to close the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. If that sounds familiar, it’s because he made the same promise on his second full day in office.

If Obama hopes to accomplish this goal, he will almost certainly have to act alone. This would be a constitutionally risky attempt to infringe on congressional prerogatives, and it would bring a dangerous group of extremists to the U.S. over the objections of local residents. But it’s the right thing to do.

The moral argument in favor of closing the camp remains overwhelming. While waterboarding and other “enhanced interrogation techniques” are a thing of the past, they remain a blot on America’s reputation. Islamic State’s practice of forcing its execution victims to wear orange jumpsuits is a reminder that Gitmo’s very existence still provides fodder for the jihadi propaganda machine.

There are more practical concerns. By Pentagon accounting, taxpayers spend nearly $3 million per year for each detainee, versus more than $70,000 for each inmate at a federal maximum-security prison. Yes, building a new facility on the mainland would be expensive. But it would save money over time in detaining the 60 or so prisoners deemed too dangerous to release.

Diplomatically, there’s no denying that having the controversial camp on a patch of the island has given the Castro regime a moral cudgel to use against U.S. efforts to encourage democracy and human rights. And legally, ever since the Supreme Court ruled seven years ago that the detainees in Cuba are entitled to habeas corpus protections, it has been difficult to argue that moving them to U.S. soil would give them undue legal advantages.

In using the power of the purse to keep the administration from transferring the detainees to a domestic site, Congress has put politics over common sense. Obama said last week he would offer a compromise solution, which he has long promised to John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a proponent of shuttering the facility. But that’s political theater: Lawmakers remain determined to keep it open.

Fortunately, closing Gitmo is well within Obama’s constitutional authority as commander in chief. The first priority is stepping up the release of the 30 or so other detainees who have been cleared as no longer posing a threat to U.S. security. Many are Yemeni nationals and cannot be returned to a failed country in the midst of civil war, but surely a small portion of the Pentagon’s $600 billion budget can be used to encourage willing takers.

As for the 60 “worst of the worst,” the journey to the U.S. will likely be their last. While the military tribunals have been anything but efficient, they remain the proper legal route for detainees who cannot be charged in civilian courts. For those the military cannot charge at all, indefinite detention is the most viable option for combatants captured on the battlefield of an ongoing war.

The administration has discussed a handful of sites as appropriate for the new facility, including military bases in Kansas and South Carolina, and the federal supermax prison in Colorado. The local political backlash will be substantial — but if Washington can bribe Estonia and Palau to take in freed detainees, then surely it can reach an accommodation with a U.S. state over those still behind bars.

Most Americans know that Obama promised to close the Guantanamo facility. Fewer are probably aware that George W. Bush, whose administration opened it, now wants it closed, too. If Congress won’t also change its mind, the president has no choice but to act on his own.

By Bloomberg View