A senior Defense Department official said Thursday that the United States may have to consider moving some of Guantanamo Bay's most dangerous terrorist detainees to the United States, an idea that Congress has so far opposed.
Defense Undersecretary Brian McKeon told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday that the Obama administration remains committed to closing down the detainee facilities at Guantanamo Bay, and said it continues to assess which detainees can safely be transferred and held in other countries.
But he said he doubts all detainees will be able to be transferred, which means they may need to be housed in the United States in order to close the facility in Cuba.
"[I]t is likely that several detainees cannot be prosecuted but who are too dangerous to transfer, even with security assurances, will remain in our custody," he said. "Ultimately, closing the detention center at Guantanamo Bay will require us to consider additional options, including the possibility of transferring some detainees to a secure facility in the United States."
Congress has explicitly blocked the Obama administration from moving any detainees to the U.S., in annual bills that outline U.S. defense policy. That language is based in part on the fear some have that holding these terrorists in the U.S. might lead to acts of terrorism in the United States.
The congressional ban means McKeon's proposal would require an explicit shift in the position Congress has taken for the last few years.
As of this week, there are 122 remaining detainees, and 54 of them are eligible to be transferred. Ten more are being prosecuted or have been sentenced, and 58 are under review by the board tasked with assessing whether they can be transferred safely overseas.
McKeon said Defense would continue the process of transferring, prosecuting or reviewing these detainees, and said he's aware that moving any of them to the United States is against current law. But he said he would continue working with Congress on this issue, a sign the government will continue to press for the right to place some detainees on U.S. soil.
McKeon's recommendation is a product of the Obama administration's belief that it's time to close the facilities in Cuba, which he said have become a flash point that terrorist groups have used to recruit more followers.
"The president has determined that closing this detention facility is a national security imperative," he said. "The President and his national security team all believe that the continued operation of the detention facility at Guantanamo weakens our national security by draining resources, damaging our relationships with key allies, and is used by violent extremists to incite local populations."
"It is no coincidence that the recent ISIS videos showing the barbaric burning of a Jordanian pilot and the savage execution of a Japanese hostage each showed the victim clothed in an orange jumpsuit, believed by many to be the symbol of the Guantanamo detention facility," McKeon added.
While President Barack Obama wants to close the facilities, McKeon admitted that nearly 30 percent of all released detainees have either returned to terrorism, or are thought to have returned. Those fears have fueled more objections in Congress to any further releases, and Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) has proposed a bill to block these releases for two years.
But McKeon said the administration opposes this bill. "Because this legislation, if enacted, would effectively block progress toward the goal of closing the Guantanamo Bay detention center, the administration opposes it," he said.