President Barack Obama is renewing his effort to close the U.S. military detention center at Guantanamo Bay, but domestic opposition and the complexities of what to do with the prisoners there pose significant obstacles to shutting the facility on the Cuban shoreline.
The U.S. has held terrorism suspects at the prison since 2002. But in a major national security speech Thursday, Obama said the ongoing operation of the detention center - now with 166 prisoners - damages the reputation of the United States around the world.
"The original premise for opening [Guantanamo Bay] - that the detainees would not be able to challenge their detention -- was found unconstitutional five years ago. In the meantime, [Guantanamo] has become a symbol around the world for an America that flouts the rule of law," Obama said.
Nonetheless, recent surveys in the U.S. show that voters favor keeping Guantanamo open. In the last few years, several U.S. communities have voiced opposition to moving the Guantanamo detainees to prisons inside the U.S. Lawmakers in Congress have mixed opinions about what to do about the facility, and have moved to block transfer of the suspects to other countries or to bring them to the U.S. for trial.
Senator John McCain was once a prisoner of war in Vietnam and also was Obama's Republican presidential opponent in 2008. McCain favors closing the Guantanamo Bay prison and pledged to work with Obama on a plan. But he said the issues surrounding the facility are complex and that it is not clear what should be done with the prisoners being held there.
"There are a lot of moving parts to closing Guantanamo Bay, not the least of which is where you put these people, which ones have to be kept on almost an indefinite basis, those who are eligible for military courts, and those who are eligible for civilian courts. All those are tied together," McCain said.
Other lawmakers oppose closing the prison and sending some of the prisoners back to their home countries. Obama lifted his self-imposed ban on transferring some of the detainees back to Yemen. But one senator, Saxby Chambliss, says he opposes closing Guantanamo and has no confidence that Yemen can control any of the prisoners returned there.
"Between December 2009 and today, has Yemen shown any indication that they are more capable of looking after those individuals? Absolutely not. And If we were to transfer those individuals to Yemen, it would be just like turning them loose," Chambliss said.
David Remes, a human rights attorney who has represented several Guantanamo prisoners, said he does not think Obama's move to lift his ban on repatriating the Yemeni detainees has any practical effect unless he actually frees them.
But he said the possibility that some freed prisoners might engage in anti-American terrorist acts should not be the controlling factor in whether they are released.
"Even if one or two or three detainees, not necessarily in Yemen but anywhere, and not necessarily one, two or three, went back and did bad things, that doesn’t justify holding the large majority, the vast majority of detainees captive or hostage to the acts, to the bad acts of these few men," Remes said.
Remes said risks are inherent in the release of any of the prisoners. "One has to accept some risk if anyone’s going to be transferred. That’s simply the reality," he said.