White House: We're probably not going to empty out Gitmo before January 20th

It won’t be for lack of trying. As Congress finalized the continuing resolution for FY2017 that will keep government operating until the end of April, some on Capitol Hill began to worry whether Barack Obama would attempt to fulfill his “Day 1” promise to close the detention center in Guantanamo Bay by defying Congressional restrictions on transfers of detainees to the US. Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) raised the issue a week after the election, couching it in terms of optimism that would refrain from “dramatic action” in his final days in an interview with Fox’s Pete Hegseth:

“I’ve been struck since the election, not only at Donald Trump’s magnanimous tone, but Barack Obama’s gracious beginning of the transfer of power,” Cotton said in an interview on Fox News’s “Fox and Friends” Wednesday morning. “I would hope that President Obama wouldn’t take that kind of dramatic action, contrary to the president-elect’s wishes. President Bush did not do that when President Obama was coming into office.” …

“Guantánamo Bay though won’t be closed,” Cotton said. “It might be empty or its population might be reduced, but it will remain open and it will remain a critical tool in our global war against terror.”

Will Obama go big on Gitmo and try to shutter the facility in the next 41 days? Politico’s Josh Gerstein reports that Obama counterterrorism adviser Lisa Monaco said Obama would not defy Congress to remove all of the remaining 59 to US soil to close the facility. However, the White House will continue to look for ways to transfer as many as possible to other countries before Donald Trump takes the oath of office:

“At the end of the day, the domestic transfer restriction remains in place, so until Congress lifts that we’re not able to bring detainees here even to serve a life sentence, even to undergo prosecution to render a life sentence, so those restrictions remain in place,” Monaco told reporters at a discussion arranged by the Christian Science Monitor. “There will be some number that remain, an absent an ability and a lifting of the Congressional restrictions to bring them to the United States, they will remain in Guantanamo.”

Obama is expected to sign a defense authorization bill that cleared Congress Thursday and contains language maintaining the ban on transfers to the U.S., as well as limits on transfers of prisoners abroad.

However, Monaco said the Obama administration won’t let up on efforts to shrink the prisoner population at Gitmo, now down to 59 from 240 when Obama took office.

“We’re going to continue to pursue those transfers, just as many as we can before Jan. 20th,” she said.

Some Gitmo detainees can’t be released, not even to our partners. The five 9/11 plotters, led by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, won’t ever get a chance to set foot anywhere else, for instance, and there are at least five others considered “unreleasable.” That still leaves dozens of detainees that the Obama administration might try to shuffle out of Gitmo, but the earlier releases involved somewhat less egregious terrorists.  What’s left is considered the worst of the worst, and given the recidivism seen from other Gitmo detainees released in diplomatic exchanges, offers up significant risk of having their value in leaving Gitmo far overshadowed in the damage they will later do.

That would suggest, under rational circumstances, that the Obama administration might be bluffing on this pledge. If they can’t close Gitmo outright, why pursue highly risky releases when the entire issue will become someone else’s problem in less than six weeks? On the other hand, it does look like Monaco isn’t bluffing:

The Pentagon said on Sunday that it had sent a Yemeni detainee from the wartime prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, to Cape Verde, the island nation off the west coast of Africa. It was the first transfer from the prison since the election victory last month by Donald J. Trump, who vowed during the campaign to reverse President Obama’s effort to close Guantánamo.

The man, Shawki Awad Balzuhair, had been imprisoned without trial for more than 14 years. His departure reduced the detainee population to 59, of whom 20 are recommended for transfer.

Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter recently gave a 30-day notice to Congress that eight detainees on that list would be transferred several weeks from now, according to officials who discussed the notices on the condition of anonymity because they are not yet public.

The New York Times’ Charlie Savage notes that the direction of detentions may change in a hurry after January 20th:

In fits and starts, the president has whittled down the remaining prison population, citing the high expense of imprisoning people there and portraying its continued operation as a symbol that fuels anti-American sentiments. Mr. Trump, by contrast, has said he will keep it open and “load it up with some bad dudes.”