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Obama Proposes Guantanamo-Shutdown Plan

DAVID GREENE, BYLINE: At the White House just a few moments ago, President Obama unveiled a plan for how the United States could shut down the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The plan would bring between 30 and 60 detainees who are deemed too dangerous to release to a prison somewhere on U.S. soil.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I am very clear-eyed about the hurdles to finally closing Guantanamo. The politics of this are tough. I think a lot of the American public are worried about terrorism and in their mind, the notion of having terrorists held in the United States rather than in some distant place can be scary.

GREENE: That's the president at the White House just a few moments ago. Now, closing Guantanamo has been a long time in the making. Seven years ago, the president said he would shut the facility as one of his first acts in office. Ninety-one detainees are still housed there. Joining us to discuss this in the studio with me is NPR National Security Editor Phil Ewing. Phil, thanks for coming in.

PHIL EWING, BYLINE: My pleasure.

GREENE: How big a deal is this?

EWING: The president wants it to be a big deal. This is him keeping a promise, as you described, that he made in his campaign, and also fulfilling an obligation created by Congress when it passed a law most recently that said OK, if the president is serious, he has to send us a proposal, something that we can evaluate and act upon. But there's a lot of resistance. We heard the president say this morning he has no illusions, he's clear-eyed about the obstacles. And so I'm not sure about how much progress we're going to see at least in the near term on this issue.

GREENE: Yeah, he said the politics are tough, which may actually be the understatement of the day, right? I mean, isn't there a law in place that prevents him from actually closing Guantanamo that came from this Republican-controlled Congress?

EWING: Yeah, that's correct. The Pentagon has been forbidden from spending money to study alternatives, the president is forbidden by law from moving these detainees to the United States. So this is something on which Congress would have to act to lift those barriers in order for the White House to do what the president wants. Although there are some people who are close to the administration who have wanted to close Guantanamo, he - who argue that he has that authority already. And that's going to be a test case probably a little bit farther down the line.

GREENE: Well, let's talk about that test case farther down the line. I mean, could the present use executive authority, as he has in the past, to get around Congress to actually close this facility?

EWING: The White House hasn't ruled anything out. They've been very careful to say they're willing to give themselves as much space as they think they can take after this plan has gone to Congress. And so today was the news of him presenting it to them and giving them weeks or months to evaluate what it says. Once they've acted, or more likely not acted, then I think the president and his advisers are going to try and to evaluate what steps he can take in terms of acting on his own.

GREENE: And we should say this is an election year. I mean, the White House has to be cognizant of what a debate like that could do to the election.

EWING: That's right. And the president wants a Democrat to win - he most likely wants Hillary Clinton to win - and so the risks for him of acting before that election is concluded are significant because it would potentially bring a lot of problems for her given their close ties and given the advocacy that he's expected to make on her behalf as we get closer to the general election.

GREENE: You often see a president do some big things last-minute after an election takes place. This could, in theory, be one of those things that we see President Obama acting on post-election.

EWING: Theoretically, but it would be a big one.

GREENE: Just in the brief time we have left, the president said this has the potential to be an end of an era if he closes this prison down. What do you think he's talking about?

EWING: He was talking about the post-9/11, George W. Bush approach to counterterrorism and national security. He wants that to end. He wants things to follow the standard rule of law, what he called Article III courts in the United States in which terrorists would be tried the way criminals are, as opposed to these unusual processes down there. He wants that era to go away and for us to move on.

GREENE: All right, that's NPR's national security editor, Phil Ewing. Phil, thanks a lot.

EWING: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Phil Ewing