President Barack Obama’s proposal for shuttering the U.S. military prison for alleged terrorists at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba, which he sent to Congress on Tuesday, met with harsh criticism from South Carolina lawmakers worried about the possibility of detainees being transferred to their state.
The 21-page plan, which congressional legislation had required to be submitted by Tuesday, would transfer 30 to 60 detainees from Guantánamo to an unidentified high-security prison in the United States at an estimated cost of $290 million to $475 million.
The Pentagon scouted the U.S. Naval Consolidated Brig in Hanahan, South Carolina, last August as a potential site to transfer the detainees to. It lies five miles from North Charleston.
“The law could not be any clearer: President Obama does not have the authority to move dozens of dangerous terrorists from the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay to American communities,” Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., said in a statement Tuesday.
Here’s the question we should all ask ourselves: How does this make Americans safer? It doesn’t. It’s all bad, a bad decision and a bad idea. We’re talking about an open-ended timeline for these enemy combatants to be detained.
Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C.
While the domestic sites under consideration would be equipped to secure the remaining detainees, many of whom never have been charged with crimes, critics worry that their presence might attract sympathizers and make nearby communities targets. Charleston is a national tourist destination with a metropolitan population of almost 700,000.
“Ultimately any location in America is a bad location from a national security standpoint. Why would you put 50 or so enemy combatants near any population center, whether it be in Colorado or Leavenworth or even a desert in Arizona?” Scott said in a call with reporters. “The reality is, from my perspective, any location (in the U.S.) puts in danger American lives unnecessarily.”
Two other domestic sites were surveyed: the Disciplinary Barracks in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and the country’s highest-security prison, the Federal Correctional Complex in Florence, Colorado, which has been dubbed the “Alcatraz of the Rockies.”
Scott, along with Sens. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and Cory Gardner, R-Colo., has been a leading voice in opposition to shuttering the facility and transferring detainees to U.S. soil. The three senators sat together at Obama’s last State of the Union address last month as a symbol of protest of the upcoming plan.
South Carolina Republicans in the House of Representatives joined Scott on Tuesday in opposing Obama’s plan.
“The detainees housed in Guantanamo are the most dangerous terrorists. They should not be housed at the Charleston naval brig – adjacent to schools, churches, neighborhoods and ports. Congress and the American public have spoken on this issue and it is time that the president listened,” Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., who has visited the facility twice, said in a statement Tuesday.
“Here we go again – another proposed unilateral decision by the president,” Republican Rep. Mark Sanford, whose district includes Charleston, said in a statement.
“My take is that this probably has more to do with political posturing and electioneering than making change, given that it’s these kinds of actions that have inflamed the American public and generated the level of enthusiasm that we’ve seen this year in the campaigns of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders,” Sanford said.
South Carolina Republican Gov. Nikki Haley said in a Facebook post that she would “fight any attempts to bring terrorists into our states.”
The state’s top prosecutor, Alan Wilson, sent a letter in November with his Kansas and Colorado counterparts imploring the president not to send prisoners to their states.
Obama said his plan would save American taxpayers more than $300 million in the first 10 years after implementation and as much as $1.7 billion over two decades.
“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 acknowledged that the closure plan, which he campaigned on in 2008 and vowed to carry out in an executive order in January 2009 two days after he took office, 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.
Virtually all Republican members of Congress, along with the party’s presidential candidates, have opposed moving the Guantánamo detainees to the United States.
“President Obama’s plan to relocate dangerous terrorists to United States soil is not only reckless but against the law,” Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., said in a tweet Tuesday.
Rep. Jim Clyburn, the House assistant democratic leader and South Carolina’s only Democrat in Congress, said it was not clear yet whether the plan would affect South Carolina.
“I would wait to see what the president does,” he said when asked about Obama’s proposal on an unrelated call with reporters about the Democratic primary. “If he proposes something that would have an impact on South Carolina, I’ll have something to say. But don’t think I ought to be getting out in front of the president on that or anything else.”
Obama said in his remarks that the United States would save $85 million a year in the cost of holding the detainees. The government spent $445 million last year at Guantánamo.
Among 91 detainees at the prison on a U.S. base in Cuba, 35 are eligible for transfer and 10 are in various phases of military commission hearings, the president said. The government will accelerate reviews for the rest to determine whether they can be transferred.
779 Number of detainees who have been held at Guantánamo for varying amounts of time. President George W. Bush released 532 to other countries, while Obama said he had sent 147 abroad.
The first alleged terrorists were taken to the Guantánamo detention center in January 2002, exactly four months after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in New York and Washington, which killed almost 3,000 people.
Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, and four of his suspected plotters have been engaged in pretrial hearings for a decade before a military commission judge at Guantánamo. Their trail is still years away 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 CIA “black” sites where they were held for three to four years.