WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The White House said on Wednesday it was in the final stage of drafting a plan for closing the Guantanamo prison for foreign terrorism suspects, racing against time to resolve one of President Barack Obama’s most intractable problems.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the administration hoped to “short circuit” opposition from Republicans in Congress who have blocked Obama from closing the prison, one of his top goals.
Republicans have barred transfers to America from the facility at the Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval base in Cuba. The administration has also faced resistance in the Pentagon to repatriating those still seen as a potential threat.
The prison has been the source of alleged abuses, including the waterboarding of prisoners under interrogation, and the White House says it is used as a propaganda tool for militant groups recruiting supporters to fight America.
It was set up after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks for al Qaeda and Taliban detainees. Obama vowed to close it within a year when he came to office in 2009.
“The administration is ... in the final stages of drafting a plan to safely, responsibly, the prison at Guantanamo and to present that plan to Congress,” Earnest told a regular briefing.
There were two transfers of prisoners to their homeland or third countries this year that cut the total there from 127 to 116. Washington has ruled out sending 69 Yemenis home because of the chaotic security situation in their homeland.
The New York Times reported on Wednesday that there were concerns in the White House about delays in transfers by the Pentagon.
It said White House national security adviser Susan Rice had last week met with Secretary of Defense Ash Carter and presented him with a memo that said he would have 30 days to make decisions on a number of newly proposed transfers.
The newspaper said Carter did not make a commitment to moving the prisoners by a particular date.
Republican lawmakers have argued that transferring Guantanamo prisoners to other countries may eventually lead to them being freed and returning to fight against U.S. interests.
Earnest said the White House would share the closure plan with lawmakers once it was completed.
The Senate is debating an annual defense policy bill that would permit closure of the prison, but only if the president first submits a plan that is approved by Congress.
Senator John McCain, head of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has long urged Obama to submit a plan for closing Guantanamo and is backing the language in the policy bill, the National Defense Authorization Act.
McCain says the closure proposal would have to include a plan for hearing the cases of the remaining prisoners at the camp. It also would need a proposal for future detention of the remaining prisoners.
The Guantanamo prison still provokes debates among rights advocates and security officials over whether terrorism suspects should be prosecuted in the U.S. civil legal system or treated as enemy fighters and held under laws of war.
Reporting by Julia Edwards; Editing by Leslie Adler and Christian Plumb