President Obama's nominee for Secretary of Defense, Ashton Carter, can expect tough questions at his Wednesday confirmation hearing -- on issues ranging from the military campaign against ISIL and the legal authority (or lack thereof) for it to U.S. policy toward repressive regimes (Egypt, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia) where the U.S. has significant security interests. But the hot-button issue that may have the biggest impact on his potential tenure as Secretary of Defense, and indeed on the president's legacy, is the closing of Guantanamo.
We should expect Senators John McCain (R-Arizona) and Jack Reed (D-Rhode Island) to press Carter on the matter. McCain has spoken strongly about his desire to see the prison closed (though he's co-sponsoring a bill that would restrict detainee transfers). And Jack Reed voted in 2009 for the funding to close it, as well as for the failed 2014 McCain-Levin amendment to the NDAA, which included a detailed plan for shutting the prison down.
A group of retired military leaders recently urged Senators McCain and Reed to use the hearing as an opportunity to press Carter for the administration's plan for Guantanamo's closure. "The administration should be expected to share more fully about its specific plans for shuttering Guantanamo," they wrote. "We encourage you to ask Mr. Carter about his commitment to following through on the President's stated priority of promptly and responsibly closing the detention facility." This group has long advocated for closing Gitmo and views its continued existence as a threat to national security.
Hopefully Carter will make a strong commitment to closing down Guantanamo before the end of President Obama's term. His confirmation hearing will be a key indicator of how committed he is to this goal.
If asked about the potential for released detainees returning to the fight, Carter should simply respond with the facts. According to his predecessor Chuck Hagel and the Director of National Intelligence, over 90 percent of detainees released under the Obama administration are not suspected of reengaging in terrorist activity. The 30-percent figure that gets thrown around relies on numbers that date from the Bush administration, before President Obama instituted a comprehensive review process for determining whether detainees pose a continued threat to the United States.
Detainee transfers have picked up in recent months. Twenty-eight detainees were transferred in 2014, more than half of them in December. Five more were transferred this year. And the Periodic Review Board (PRB), charged with certifying whether a detainee poses a security risk before being cleared for release, held two hearings in January. The PRBs are essential to the process of closing the prison responsibly. Before the recent uptick, the hearings were not on pace to finish until 2018.
This movement is due to the administration mustering the political will to make it happen. The White House has the authority it needs to keep up this momentum. But it's the Secretary of Defense who will have final say over any new detainee transfers, so President Obama's success at closing Guantanamo will rest firmly in Carter's hands.
If confirmed, Carter should follow through on plans to shut Guantanamo. It will be up to him to see this across the finish line.
Eviatar is Human Rights First's senior counsel for national security.