WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama’s goal of closing the Guantanamo Bay prison is facing re-energized opposition from Republicans and increased questioning from fellow Democrats amid widespread anger in Congress over the swap of five Taliban detainees for the last American prisoner of war in Afghanistan.
Obama appeared to advance his effort last month when a Senate panel approved greater authority for him to transfer suspected terrorists to the United States, on condition he presented a plan to close Guantanamo and Congress approved it.
But the deal that freed Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl after five years of captivity has driven a new wedge between the president and lawmakers of both parties who accuse the Obama administration of breaking the law.
Hoping to ease mounting criticism from Capitol Hill, officials from the State Department, Pentagon and intelligence agencies planned a private briefing with senators Wednesday evening.
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper met with a few senators earlier Wednesday, a day after Obama’s chief of staff, Denis McDonough, and senior adviser John Podesta struggled to soothe tempers among Senate Democrats. Some senators received personal apologies for not being consulted before the exchange.
Members of Congress say the prisoner trade almost surely will end with the Taliban commanders returning to the battlefield. Lawmakers also say Obama ignored the law and his administration’s own pledge to provide Congress with notification at least 30 days in advance. The White House insists it acted lawfully and said it had to move quickly to save Bergdahl’s life.
Some lawmakers are now focusing on making it harder for the president to transfer prisoners from Guantanamo.
“This is one of the reasons why a number of us have been so strongly opposed to the release of individuals there,” said Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga.
Added Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.: “There will be a real effort by the Congress to ensure that we don’t close the jail until we find a … game plan that would not result in the prisoners being released back on the battlefield.”
Republicans and Democrats have hampered Obama’s attempts to move detainees to U.S. soil. Even before the Bergdahl deal, Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, pledged to fight to keep Guantanamo open and leave the 154 detainees incarcerated. Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., prevailed in adding a one-year freeze to the defense bill on transferring detainees from Guantanamo to Yemen, the home base of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., an Obama ally, acknowledged that a fight was likely. Two weeks ago, he said the defense bill he crafted as committee chairman “created a path to close Guantanamo.”
Tighter constraints on Guantanamo prisoners may be worth considering, said Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., but he questioned their value if the president was ignoring existing rules. Obama “has completely gone rogue on this topic,” Rubio said.
Several Democrats have criticized the swap. On Tuesday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who heads the Senate Intelligence Committee, said she was shocked not to have been consulted. The exchange went ahead “totally not following the law,” said Feinstein, D-Calif.
Despite the bipartisan concern, Majority Leader Harry Reid accused Republicans of playing politics. In the Senate Wednesday, he read aloud past statements from Republicans who said no U.S. service member should be left behind.
In a sign Obama has maintained some support to shutter Guantanamo, Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a key swing Democrat, remained open to closing the prison. Manchin has described the Bergdahl deal as “disturbing,” but in speaking of Guantanamo cited the economic arguments against a facility with operating costs of more than $2 million per year per prisoner.
“We have prisons here in the United States and we can do the job that needs to be done and do it a lot more cost effective,” Manchin said.
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