The Department of Defense notified lawmakers Friday that teams will visit two military installations in the United States — Fort Leavenworth in Kansas and the Naval Brig in Charleston, S.C. — to conduct “site surveys” looking into transferring a “limited number” of Guantanamo detainees, Pentagon and Capitol Hill sources told Fox News.
The move, coming on the same day Secretary of State John Kerry marked the re-opening of the U.S. Embassy in Cuba, has already triggered a backlash on Capitol Hill. But, despite existing congressional restrictions on moving the detainees to U.S. soil, the notice itself suggests officials are wasting no time exploring transfer options for those at the controversial Cuba prison camp.
One Capitol Hill source, reading from the notification, said the first Defense Department survey team was due to visit Fort Leavenworth “starting today [Friday].”
The Naval Brig in Charleston will be visited in the “next several weeks,” said another source, reading from the same notification, which went out Friday morning.
Legally, the administration is still barred from transferring Guantanamo detainees to the United States, according to laws passed by Congress starting in 2010. Building or modifying facilities to house Gitmo inmates is also prohibited in the United States.
“Perhaps DoD does not think this is part of that ‘build or modify’ section,” one source told Fox News, questioning DoD’s funding of the site survey teams visiting the two military installations.
After learning of the survey teams, lawmakers representing Kansas vowed to fight any proposed transfers to their state. Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said in a statement that the move "reflects another egregious overstep by this administration."
"Congress has consistently stopped Obama by law from moving a single detainee to the U.S.," he said. "Not on my watch will any terrorist be placed in Kansas."
"Terrorists should not be living down the road from Ft. Leavenworth – home to thousands of Army soldiers and their families, as well as military personnel from across the globe who study at the Intellectual Center of the Army," Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., said in a statement.
"This administration’s last-ditch effort to carry out President Obama’s reckless national security decision before he leaves office is disingenuous and flawed."
Kansas Rep. Lynn Jenkins also fired off a letter to Defense Secretary Ash Carter demanding he abandon any such plans.
"At a time when we face relentless threats from the Islamic State, and have yet to hear a strategy to defeat ISIL, it is absurd to hear that the Department of Defense has personnel on the ground at Fort Leavenworth conducting site surveys to advance the President's proposal that could ultimately result in the transfer of these terrorist to Kansas," she said in a statement.
She also said moving detainees stateside would violate federal law. "It is irresponsible, reckless, and to overstep the law to do so is a dangerous precedent," the congresswoman said.
Despite the congressional restrictions, President Obama still wants to fulfill his pledge to shutter the Cuba prison camp. He hasn’t yet provided a plan for achieving this to Congress. A total of 116 detainees remain at Guantanamo, 52 of whom have been approved for transfer.
The Pentagon confirmed to Fox News that DoD personnel will survey the two military sites, “as part of our broader and ongoing effort to identify locations within the United States that can [possibly] facilitate military commissions and can possibly hold detainees currently at Guantanamo Bay.”
Defense Department spokesman Cmdr. Gary Ross said in a statement that security and humane treatment are “primary concerns” but cost is also a factor. He said the costs of providing medical care at Guantanamo, for instance, are rising as the population ages.
He added: “Only those locations that can hold detainees at a maximum security level will be considered. DoD personnel will consider surveying a variety of military and civilian sites to determine their candidacy for holding law of war detainees in a humane and secure manner. There is a broad list of facilities that will be potentially considered. This list is informed by past assessment efforts."
Whether the administration can reach an agreement with Congress to approve transfers to the U.S. remains to be seen.
The notice sent out Friday -- first reported by Voice of America -- said the teams will look at logistical issues: “The assessment team will meet with facility staff to discuss engineering, force protection, troop housing, security, transportation, information security, contracting and other operational issues.”
“No facilities have been selected,” the notification added.