With only 11 months remaining in his term, President Barack Obama on Tuesday made one last push to fulfill his most enduring failed campaign pledge: closing the detention center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
But the prospects of success seemed slim, with many Republicans promising defeat for the proposal even as the president touted it as saving money, promoting American values and depriving terrorists of a recruiting tool.
Even Obama could not avoid mentioning specter of past torture as he explained the value of moving the remaining terror suspects from the military prison in Cuba that has housed them since 2002 to unspecified sites in the United States. While extolling the record of civilian federal courts in convicting terrorists, he acknowledged that “the manner in which they were originally apprehended and what happened” – a reference to abusive interrogation at CIA black sites – would make it difficult to prosecute some of the Guantánamo detainees.
Obama’s nine-page plan, which previous congressional legislation required to be submitted by Tuesday, would transfer 30 to 60 detainees currently at Guantánamo to an unidentified high-security prison in the United States at an estimated cost of $290 million to $475 million.
“With this plan, we have the opportunity finally to eliminate a terrorist propaganda tool, to strengthen relationships with allies and partners, enhance our national security, and most importantly uphold the values that bind us as Americans,” Obama said in a short address minutes after the plan was released.
Obama urged a fair hearing, and his aides expressed hope that Republicans would negotiate with the administration. But both sides launched biting attacks against the other fueled by election-year politics and the momentous question of which party will win the White House.
Obama accused GOP lawmakers of having fanned fears “oftentimes with misinformation” about moving dozens of alleged terrorists to a prison in the United States, and he said they’d made the task harder by imposing unnecessary restrictions.
Republicans, in turn, blasted Obama for waiting until almost to the end of his tenure to submit a plan, then lambasted the proposal as vague, noting that it didn’t even recommend whether the detainees’ new home on the mainland should be a military or civilian prison.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, the Arizona Republican whom Obama defeated in the 2008 presidential race, was virtually the only GOP leader who promised to consider the plan, though he was muted in his comments. “What we received today is a vague menu of options, not a credible plan for closing Guantánamo, let alone a coherent policy to deal with future terrorist detainees,” McCain said in a statement.
Republican presidential hopeful Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida went further, accusing Obama of plotting to return the Guantánamo naval base to Cuba “as the end result of President Obama’s dangerous plan to release terrorists back into the battlefield or bring them to U.S. soil.”
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest and his Pentagon counterpart, Peter Cook, denied that there was any plan to surrender the base, which the United States has occupied since the Spanish-American war in 1898.
Rubio and Republican Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina introduced a bill to block Obama’s plan.
“President Obama’s aggressive push to close the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay is dangerous,” Burr said in a statement.
Obama acknowledged that the closure plan would face stiff opposition in the Republican-controlled Congress, but he asked lawmakers to consider it.
“Given the stakes involved for our national security, this plan deserves a fair hearing, even in an election year,” Obama said.
Republican operatives quickly signaled that they will try to use the divisive issue as a weapon in November against Democratic incumbents they view as vulnerable. In one such statement, the National Republican Congressional Committee singled out California Democrat Rep. Ami Bera of Sacramento, saying he “will have to choose whether to stand up for national security or stand with President Obama by voting to bring dangerous terrorists to U.S. soil.”
The prospect of closing the prison revived a host of issues that have roiled the debate over the prison camp since it opened in January 2002. Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, the No. 2 Republican in the House, drew attention to the arrest of a former Guantánamo detainee suspected of being part of an Islamic State cell in North Africa. Several other GOP lawmakers also cited one-time detainees who have returned to the fight against the United States.
Obama fired back, noting that the administration of President George W. Bush transferred more than 500 detainees from Guantánamo compared with 147 that Obama has sent to other countries.
The Obama administration said 35 of the 91 prisoners currently at Guantánamo had been identified as eligible for transfer and that efforts would continue to place those prisoners in third countries. Ten others are involved in various phases of military commission hearings and 46 are undergoing review to determine whether they can be transferred, officials said Tuesday.
Those who would remain in custody would be dispatched to the United States, where 13 sites have been identified as potential locations to house the detainees. The plan did not name any of those locations, though Pentagon officials previously had visited Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, the U.S. Naval Consolidated Brig in Charleston, South Carolina, four sites in Colorado and a second prison in Kansas.
Housing the reduced number of detainees in the United States, as opposed to at Guantánamo, would save between $65 million and $85 million a year, according to plan projectinos, and total annual costs would be $160 million to $180 million less annually than the $445 million the Guantánamo prison cost in 2015.
Obama said total savings over 20 years could total $1.7 billion.
Whatever the savings, Obama said shuttering Guantánamo would help restore the United States’ standing in the world.
“Guantánamo harms our partnerships with our allies and other countries whose cooperation we need against terrorism,” he said in remarks at the White House. “It undermines our standing in the world. It is viewed as a stain on our broader record of upholding the highest standard of the rule of law.”
“I’m absolutely committed to closing the detention facility,” he added. “I’m going to make the case for doing so as long as I hold this office.”
The first alleged terrorists were brought to the Guantánamo detention center in January 2002, exactly four months after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in New York and Washington that killed almost 3,000 people.
A total of 779 detainees have been held at Guantánamo for varying amounts of time. President George W. Bush released 532 to other countries, while Obama said he has sent 147 abroad.
Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four other alleged 9/11 plotters have been engaged in pre-trial hearings for a decade before a military commission judge at Guantánamo, their actual trial still years from starting because of hundreds of motions filed by their attorneys.
Two of them were at the war court Tuesday for pretrial hearings on defense attorneys’ access to evidence from the so-called CIA black sites, where they were held for three to four years.
Carol Rosenberg of the Miami Herald contributed