GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, CUBA — The Obama administration marked a political milestone Tuesday with its submittal of a plan to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility — a move that will very likely be its last legislative attempt to close the notorious prison.
But 1,500 miles south, the political excitement barely permeated the heavy Cuban heat on the naval base, where the pretrial hearings of alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his four co-conspirators continued their slow trudge toward trial.
The long-awaited plan, delivered to an obstinate Republican-majority Congress Tuesday, seeks to close the detention center on the otherwise quiet naval installation and bring its remaining "war on terror" prisoners to U.S. soil. The plan, however, does not make a formal recommendation as to where those detainees should be transferred, nor does it clearly articulate the financial cost of transferring the multibillion-dollar operation to the U.S.
Ninety-one detainees are currently held in the maximum-security facility. Thirty-five of those 91 are currently cleared for release and resettlement to third-party countries, and administration officials told reporters Tuesday morning that they expect to bring the prison's population down to 60 in the coming months.
The physical detention facility, which sits on a small off-limits section of the naval station, has seen itself largely isolated from the political turmoil over how to shutter it. The heated debate plays in the background here, where military personnel are more than happy to leave the politicking to Washington and the prison continues, ever so slowly, to shrink.
What did inspire at least feigned interest in Cuba Tuesday was the Obama administration’s recommendations to overhaul the military commissions process, which has endured several slow, painful deaths and subsequent reincarnations since the commissions' start in 2004.
“The only realistic changes of this plan are that we potentially may have more detainees cleared by the end of 2016 — which means little if we don’t have the means to release them promptly — and that the administration may try to speed up the commissions process through changing the Military Commissions Act,” said Alka Pradhan, a lawyer for one of the accused 9/11 plotters, Ammar al Baluchi. “Any changes to the MCA in favor of 'efficiency' will almost certainly shortchange what little rule of law and procedural protections the defendants now have, in this offshore court built from scratch.”
The commissions process, which currently has seven high-value detainees running through three active cases, costs $91 million a year. None of those cases are in a trial phase; all are currently considering hundreds of pretrial motions. The full process, if left undisturbed, is expected to take years to wrap up.
The court sessions take place on a sprawling legal complex on the naval base’s abandoned airfield, where media and observers stay in on-site tent facilities, and commissions personnel work out of a multimillion-dollar, state-of-the-art high-security legal facility.
In its plan released Tuesday, the White House said it would explore options for speeding up the commissions process, both through its establishing precedent, the Military Commissions Act, and other legislative avenues. The changes, the plan says, could involve transferring certain cases to federal courts, referred to as "Article III" courts, to draw a distinction between them and the current military tribunals.
“The Administration is also considering whether there are other legislative changes outside the context of the [Military Commissions Act] that might enable detainees who are interested in pleading guilty in Article III courts, and serving prison sentences according to our criminal laws, to do so,” the plan said.
A chief criticism of the slow-moving military commissions process is that, in the five years since the latest version of the military commissions began, several terror suspects, including Boston bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, have been tried, convicted and put away. The military commissions, meanwhile, have not even reached trial.
A Defense Department spokesman declined to speak further on the potential changes to the military commissions.
The challenges associated with another overhaul of the commissions process could face several legal hurdles if attempts were made to bring the cases to a federal court. The torture of the alleged 9/11 suspects, as well as the defendants’ legal status, will likely be further called into question should the White House attempt a move to U.S. soil.
9/11 defense lawyers argued Tuesday about their right to access U.S. government information regarding their clients’ harsh interrogations — largely characterized as torture. The war court will continue through the week and is scheduled to reconvene in April.
Alka Pradhan represents Ammar al-Baluch. A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Walid bin Attash was her client.