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July 23, 2013

Guantanamo: A Comprehensive Exit Strategy

Updated January 2016

As the United States prepares to end major combat operations in Afghanistan—the war that gave rise to the detention facilities at Guantanamo in the first place—it is imperative that the president and Congress work together to close Guantanamo and bring an end to what has become a symbol for an America that flouts the rule of law. As the president put it in this year’s State of the Union speech: “with the Afghan war ending, this needs to be the year Congress lifts the remaining restrictions on detainee transfers and we close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, because we counter terrorism not just through intelligence and military action but by remaining true to our constitutional ideals and setting an example for the rest of the world.”

There has been significant progress over the last year towards closing Guantanamo, but the president and Congress will need to quickly take additional major steps forward to accomplish this goal. In a major counterterrorism policy address at the National Defense University in May 2013, President Obama announced critical policy shifts in a renewed effort to facilitate closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The president committed to exploring all administrative options available to transfer detainees out of the prison. In a welcome step forward, the president has demonstrated this commitment by transferring 74 detainees to their home countries or third countries since his speech. Moreover, the president has appointed special envoys at the State and Defense Departments to lead the effort to close Guantanamo. These efforts have included the prudent cessation of the self-imposed moratorium on transfers to Yemen and a return to the more sensible and fair practice of carefully assessing each transfer determination on a case-by-case basis. The administration has restarted Periodic Review Board (PRB) hearings to review the designation of detainees slated for indefinite detention. In his speech, the president also pledged to work with Congress to close the detention facility and has made progress in this regard with key changes to the detainee transfer restrictions in the Fiscal Year (FY) 2014 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). Pursuant to this pledge, the administration has already demonstrated substantial engagement with the Hill and has stepped up efforts to explain to the public and members of Congress the benefits of more workable transfer requirements.

These are all important and welcome steps. This paper outlines key additional measures the administration should adopt in developing a comprehensive plan for closing Guantanamo. Such closure necessarily requires the lawful disposition of the remaining 91 detainees. This plan is consistent with the framework articulated by the president in his May 2013 speech and that of the Guantanamo Detainee Review Task Force.