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Lynch says Guantanamo detainees cannot be transferred to U.S. under current law

"Does the Department of Justice believe that the president has the authority to violate the [law] and transfer terrorists from Guantanamo?" Sen. Chuck Grassley asked the attorney general Wednesday.
By Doug G. Ware   |   March 9, 2016 at 4:23 PM
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WASHINGTON, March 9 (UPI) -- None of the remaining detainees at the Guantanamo Bay naval prison in Cuba will be transferred anywhere in the United States as part of the effort to close the facility -- because it's against the law, the nation's top law enforcement officer said Wednesday.

Testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch stated explicitly that the prospect of moving any of the detainees to facilities in the United States could not be done without first making a change to federal law.

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"Does the Department of Justice believe that the president has the authority to violate the [law] and transfer terrorists from Guantanamo to prisons and can you assure us that this will not happen while you're Attorney General?" Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, the committee chairman, asked.

"This is, of course, an issue of long-standing discussion and interest both in the administration and within our intelligence community and our foreign counterparts and I certainly support the administration's policy in this," Lynch replied. "While there certainly are the ongoing efforts to transfer individuals from Guantanamo Bay, individuals are not able to be transferred from Guantanamo Bay to a facility on U.S. soil."

"The president would have to work with Congress," she added, noting that the National Defense Authorization Act prohibits Guantanamo Bay transfers to the United States.

The prison has been a recurring controversy for the executive branch since 2001, when the 9/11 terrorist attacks spurred its existence. Since the first day of his first term, President Barack Obama has promised to shut it down but has found that to be anything but easy.

Seven years later, it's still open. The biggest question -- where will about two-thirds of the remaining 91 detainees go?

Officials have said 35 will be transferred to other nations. The rest, administration officials previously said, can be moved to secure prisons in the United States. In fact, that intention was part of the plan Obama gave to Congress last month to shutter the facility.

President Barack Obama outlines his plan to close the controversial prison at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba, at the White House in Washington, D.C., February 23, 2016. Obama said that some of the remaining terror suspects would be transferred to facilities in the United States -- a prospect that would violate federal law, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch acknowledged Wednesday. Photo by Kevin Dietsch/UPI

That plan, though, hasn't been too well-received. Republicans, and even some Democrats, oppose it. Multiple GOP presidential candidates have said they would keep the prison open.

"After seven years, President Obama has yet to convince the American people that moving Guantanamo terrorists to our homeland is smart or safe," House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., said last month.

Officials and lawmakers have previously acknowledged potential legal obstacles with the detainee transfer proposals, but the attorney general's comments Wednesday are the most explicit yet by any administration official that there are problems with that part of the plan.

"Congress would have to consider any relevant changes that could be made to the law before any transfers could be taken," Lynch said. "The president's policy indicates a desire to work with Congress to implement any necessary changes that would have to be taken before this could be taken. I believe that is his plan."

That plan, though, might be easier said than done. With Republicans controlling both chambers of Congress -- many of whom have staunchly opposed any idea that brings terror suspects deemed "too dangerous to transfer" to the United States -- the plan to close Guantanamo may not be completed during Obama's presidency, if at all.

Estimates on the cost to close the Guantanamo prison and transfer detainees run close to $500 million -- although officials said housing them in the United States would be about $85 million cheaper than keeping the facility open in Cuba.

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