- Congress set Tuesday deadline for plan to close facility
- President says prison serves as recruiting tool for extremists
President Barack Obama released his long-awaited plan for closing the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, without offering specifics on possible locations for housing terrorism-related prisoners inside the U.S.
Obama said Tuesday that he doesn’t want the next U.S. president -- no matter who it is -- to have to keep dealing with the albatross of the prisoners held there, but Republicans, including several presidential candidates, immediately rejected the proposal.
The plan’s release comes more than seven years after Obama pledged to close the detention facility. By waiting until the congressional deadline to submit it, he offered the proposal as the U.S. is in the midst of the political process to choose Republican and Democratic nominees to succeed Obama as president.
“I really think there’s an opportunity here for progress. There’s an obligation to try,” Obama said Tuesday at the White House. “I don’t want to pass this problem on to the next president no matter who it is.”
While Obama called on the Republican-controlled Congress to help enact his plan, it was met with a volley of rebukes from Republican lawmakers, including House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. Obama declined to answer a question about whether he would use executive authority to close the prison if Congress doesn’t cooperate.
“It is against the law -- and it will stay against the law -- to transfer terrorist detainees to American soil,” Ryan said in an e-mailed statement. “We will not jeopardize our national security over a campaign promise.”
Obama noted earlier Republican support for closing Guantanamo Bay and pointed to convicted terrorists who are already being held in U.S. maximum security prisons without incident. He proposed transferring as many as 60 of the detainees captured during the war on terrorism, saying it would eliminate a recruiting tool for extremists and save the U.S. money.
“For many years it’s been clear that our detention facility at Guantanamo Bay does not advance our fight against terrorism,” Obama said. The continued existence of the prison “does not advance our national security, it undermines it.”
But even some of his potential Republican allies in closing the facility, namely Senate John McCain of Arizona, a former prisoner of war, said Obama’s new plan was too vague.
“The president has essentially passed the buck to the Congress,” he said in a written statement.
The proposal, demanded by lawmakers who have resisted Obama’s attempts to close the facility, calls for spending as much as $475 million to transfer 30 to 60 of the detainees to facilities in the U.S. There are 13 potential sites that could be used for the prisoners, but the plan outlined by the Pentagon doesn’t identify a specific location. The administration says it would work with Congress to identify the most appropriate place to hold the detainees. Obama said he expects that process to “be a challenge.”
The White House blamed Congress for the fact that it didn’t recommend locations to which to move the remaining prisoners.
“We are prohibited by law from developing the kinds of specifics and details around a specific facility,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Wednesday. “We should have a discussion about where a facility like this should be located.”
Republicans immediately rejected that argument, with Ryan spokesman Doug Andres tweeting that the law Congress passed requiring the report also instructed the president to name specific facilities.
Lawmakers from both parties have balked at Obama’s calls to close the prison since he made a campaign promise to do so in 2008. The president and his aides have argued the detention center, opened in 2002 by Republican President George W. Bush, has served as a recruiting tool for extremist groups. Obama on Tuesday called it “a stain” on the reputation of the U.S. for upholding human rights, and he said foreign leaders regularly bring up the fact that Guantanamo remains open.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, on Tuesday praised Obama’s plan, saying it’s “disappointing that Republicans have worked to prevent the long-overdue closure of the Guantanamo facility.”
Closing the prison at Guantanamo could eventually save the U.S. as much as $85 million per year in operating costs, administration officials told reporters Tuesday. The facility now costs about $445 million a year to operate. There are 91 detainees currently being held and 35 are eligible for transfer to other countries. The rest are either being prosecuted through the military commission process or have been deemed too dangerous for release.
Obama said the U.S. will accelerate reviews of remaining detainees to see if they still pose a significant threat.
The Defense Department surveyed several U.S. sites last year for transferring the prisoners, including state and federal prisons and military installations in South Carolina, Kansas and Colorado.
Ryan has pointed out that Democrats joined Republicans to pass a bill barring the transfer of Guantanamo detainees to the U.S. He highlighted a January letter sent to Congress by Lt. General William Mayville Jr., the director of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, which states that current law prohibits using funds to transfer Guantanamo detainees to the U.S.
House Republicans have retained a law firm to prepare for a potential lawsuit against the White House if Obama seeks to close the prison with an executive order.
Rejection of the plan by Congress will set the stage for such an order, said Wells Dixon, an attorney who represents Guantanamo detainees with the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York.
“Are they going to work with the president? I tend to doubt it,” Dixon said in a telephone interview. “If they don’t, I think you’ll probably see the president taking some more bold action.”
The plan was delayed for months as the Defense Department sought a suitable facility in the U.S. for the prisoners and struggled with cost estimates. Most Republicans, and several Democrats, in Congress object to Obama’s proposal to transfer detainees to facilities on U.S. soil.
Senator Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican running for president, on Tuesday co-sponsored legislation, S. 2559, by Senator Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican, intended to prevent the U.S. from transferring the military facility that includes the Guantanamo Bay prison back to Cuba, which Cuba wants. Rubio has said he supports keeping the prison open there as well and on Tuesday said that he would send captured terrorist suspects to Guantanamo to "find out everything they know," according to CNN.
Other leading Republican presidential candidates, including Senator Ted Cruz of Texas and Donald Trump, have also pledged to keep Guantanamo open, with Trump saying that he would send back any detainees who are transferred to the U.S. mainland.