Secretary of Defense Ash Carter told troops Tuesday “it would be nice” to close the detention center at Guantánamo Bay by moving roughly half the war-on-terror prisoners there to the U.S.. But, even if the prison is gone, he said, the Pentagon would keep the base.
Carter, on a question from a sailor at the base in southeast Cuba, said the outpost close to the Caribbean’s Windward Passage “is strategically located.” He added: “We’ve been operating for a long time and that’s going to stay important. I don’t see us changing that.”
The Cuban government insists that to completely normalize relations, the U.S. would have to evacuate the 45-square-mile base in Cuba. The Obama administration has said the Guantánamo lease is currently not being discussed..
Carter was holding a “Worldwide Troop Talk,” taking questions from U.S. forces on posts across the globe, and struck a far less determined tone than he did in comments to reporters last month on the idea of closing the detention center that currently holds 116 captives, 52 of them already cleared for release with security assurances.
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Some of the war-on-terror captives “need to be detained somewhere. If they are detained at Guantánamo, fine,” he said. “I would prefer to find a different place for them.”
Last month, Defense officials said the Obama administration was in the final stages of writing a plan to present to Congress on where indefinite detainees could be jailed in the U.S. Carter’s spokesman said the Defense Secretary “wants to move expeditiously.”
Tuesday, he said: “We’ll try to come up with a plan and work with Congress to see if we can do that or not.” He said his staff was looking at prisons and “other places” in the U.S. where the Guantánamo captives might be held.
Transferring the captives from the controversial prison in Cuba “would be a nice thing to do, and an important thing to do if we can do it. But we gotta be realistic about the people who are in Guantánamo Bay. They are there for a reason.”
Carter also echoed his argument offered last month that the detention center in Cuba “ends up being part of jihadi recruiting, and so forth, and I’d just as soon not leave that to future presidents.”
Carter got the Guantánamo question from the junior sailor of the quarter currently serving at the base, Petty Officer Second Class James Sorrentino, a yeoman, who appeared to pose the question on a several second time-delayed video feed from the outpost. Sorrentino was incorrectly introduced as the Navy’s Sailor of the Year and got a hearty congratulations from Carter.
Separately, a spokesman for the Department of Defense said a survey team tasked by Carter to study potential relocation sites would visit the Navy brig in Charleston, South Carolina, on Wednesday and Thursday. The team earlier surveyed the Army’s prison at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas.
“These site surveys are necessary to determine potential locations for detaining a limited number of individuals in the U.S., and to assess the costs associated with doing so,” Navy Cmdr Gary Ross said Monday. “Prudent planning and site visits are necessary in order to assess all potential locations and costs associated with any potential options.”
The governors of Kansas and South Carolina oppose moving Guantánamo captives to federal facilities in their states.
Separately, a Defense official has told the Miami Herald that the Pentagon was considering starting from scratch to build a “Guantánamo North” facility.