Another reason to close Guantanamo: It's expensive

Miami HeraldSeptember 11, 2010 

MIAMI — President Barack Obama has found another reason for closing the prison camps for suspected terrorists at Guantanamo, saying the Pentagon outpost is too expensive.

"The costs of holding folks in Guantanamo is massively higher than it is in holding them in a Supermax, maximum security prison here in the United States,'' Obama said at a White House news conference on Friday, one day before the Sept. 11 anniversary.

The Pentagon reports the annual cost of running the prison camps, staffed by a variety of U.S. military troops, at $116 million. With a current population of 176 war-on-terror detainees, that's more than $650,000 each.

By contrast, it costs just shy of $5,575 a year to keep a prisoner in federal detention, said Bureau of Prisons spokeswoman Traci Billingsley. A Supermax prisoner's cost might be a bit higher, she said, because of additional security.

The president also defended his administration's decision to send some Guantanamo detainees to trial in civilian courts and others by the Pentagon's war court, called military commissions.

Soon after taking office, Obama signed an Executive Order setting a one-year deadline to empty the prison camps that were then holding some 260 detainees. The Jan. 22 closure date passed with business as usual in the outpost in southeast Cuba.

Friday, he cited Guantanamo as a rare failure to deliver on a campaign promise. "You know, we have succeeded on delivering a lot of campaign promises,'' he said. "One where we've fallen short is closing Guantanamo. I wanted to close it sooner. We have missed that deadline. It's not for lack of trying. It's because the politics of it are difficult.''

Congress blocked White House efforts to buy an Illinois federal prison and turn it into a Supermax style facility where Guantanamo captives could both be held and tried by military tribunals.

Obama blamed fear and "political rhetoric'' but said the U.S. would be safe with Guantanamo captives on U.S. soil.

"We've got people who engaged in terrorist attacks who are in our prisons -- maximum security prisons all across the country,'' he said.

Examples include federal prisons in Florence, Colo., Marion, Ill., and Terre Haute, Ind.

He also appeared to make a pitch for a U.S. trial for confessed 9/11 conspirator Khalid Sheik Mohammed and four accused plotters, now held at Guantanamo after years in Bush-era CIA custody.

Asked whether the Sept. 11 mass murder trial will ever happen, he replied:

"We're going to work with members of Congress, and this is going to have to be on a bipartisan basis, to move this forward in a way that is consistent with our standards of due process; consistent with our Constitution; consistent also with our image in the world of -- of a country that cares about rule of law,'' he said.

"Al Qaida operatives still cite Guantanamo as a justification for attacks against the United States. Still to this day,'' the president said. "There's no reason for us to give them that kind of talking point.''

As part of his closure order, Obama had Attorney General Eric Holder set up a task force to assess each of the detainees then held at Guantanamo.

It found that at most 44 captives in the camps could be prosecuted by either military or civilian courts and an additional 48 captives were "too dangerous'' to send away but "not feasible for prosecution.''

So far, only one captive has been sent to New York for prosecution and three have gone before military commissions.

One, Ibrahim al Qosi of Sudan, a former cook in an al Qaida bachelors' quarters, recently pleaded guilty to war crimes in exchange for a plea deal that reportedly gives him a secret two-year term before return to his homeland.

The others are Omar Khadr, a Canadian, accused of terror murder in the grenade death of a U.S. soldier in Afghanistan in July 2002 and Noor Uthman Mohammed, a Sudanese man accused of running a terror training camp.

Khadr's trial resumes Oct. 18. Noor has a pre-trial hearing the week of Sept. 20.

UPDATE: A Bureau of Prisons spokesman on Monday revised upwards the cost of housing a captive in federal detention, days after the bureau said it spends a tiny fraction of what the military spends at Guantanamo Bay.

The new figure -- $27,251 a year per federal prisoner compared to $650,000 per captive at the U.S. base in Cuba -- is still a tiny fraction.

"Obviously we're far less expensive than what the military is doing,'' said Bureau of Prisons spokesman Edmond Ross.

The per prisoner cost has exceeded $25,000 for several years now in the federal system, he said. It was unclear how a colleague arrived Friday at $5,750 a year, he said.

The Pentagon spends $116 million a year to run the sprawling prison camps complex in southeast Cuba, which now holds 176 war-on-terror captives -- most in collective compound-style housing. That's in part because the Pentagon has to house, feed and entertain about 2,000 extra U.S. troops and contractors who work at the prison camps.

Costs came up on Friday when President Barack Obama conceded that domestic politics had so far stymied his campaign pledge to close the controversial camps.

Then he made another pitch to move the prisoners to U.S. soil, calling the cost of Guantanamo "massively higher'' than "a Supermax, maximum security prison here in the United States.''

Ross also said Monday there had been no movement in the Bureau of Prisons efforts to buy two state prisons in Thomson, Ill., and Standish, Mich., sites the White House considered as potential stateside substitutes for the Guantanamo camps.

Congress, which has yet to fund the purchase, has systematically used its purse strings to block the effort.

"What trumps all that is the political ramifications, obviously,'' Ross said.

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