U.S. President Barack Obama is pressing ahead with his plan to close the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, which holds 107 suspected terrorists, many of whom have been there for more than a decade.
Speaking at a news conference Thursday in Manila, Obama acknowledged that in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris there will be strong resistance to his plan from Republican lawmakers, many of whom also oppose his effort to allow 10,000 Syrian refugees to settle in the United States in the next year.
"We can keep the American people safe while shutting down that operation" in Guantanamo, Obama said. "In the aftermath of Paris, I think that there is just a very strong tendency for us to get worked up around issues that don't actually make us safer."
The president said he expects the number of prisoners held at Guantanamo could fall below 100 early in 2016, a year before he leaves office in January 2017. The prison was opened after the 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States; nearly 800 prisoners have been held there at one time or another.
Some of them have been tried for terrorism offenses and others released to countries willing to accept them, but other prisoners have languished at Guantanamo. U.S. authorities have been unable to bring them to trial because evidence was tainted by harsh interrogation techniques after they were captured. The U.S. also considers some of the prisoners too dangerous to release to other countries.
The White House and U.S. defense officials have been working for months on a plan to close Guantanamo, but release of the proposal has been delayed while cost estimates are researched further.
Closure pledge goes back to 2009
In the first days of his presidency in 2009, Obama signed an order to close the Guantanamo prison within a year, saying it violated the country's standing in the world to maintain the prison and continues to hand terrorist groups a powerful recruiting tool.
But Obama has been thwarted by those opposed to releasing the remaining terrorist suspects to other countries or transferring them to high-security facilities within the United States.
Congress recently voted overwhelmingly to block moving the detainees to U.S. soil, but the White House has refused to rule out the possibility that Obama might take executive action to carry out the transfers.
Some lawmakers, including Senator John McCain, a former prisoner of war in the 1960s in Vietnam who lost the 2008 presidential election to Obama, have said they would sue to block any executive order that attempts to circumvent congressional opposition to closing Guantanamo.
Obama said in Manila, "We are going to go through meticulously with Congress what our options are and why think [the Guantanamo prison] should be closed."