Nikki Haley says she’ll help Obama find the money to keep Guantanamo open

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley came to Washington, D.C., on Thursday with one clear message – keep Guantanamo detainees out of South Carolina, and if you need extra money to keep the prison open I’ll help you find it.

“You could pay the state of South Carolina to host these terrorists, and we wouldn’t take them. For any amount of money,” she said in her testimony before a House Homeland Security subcommittee on the local impact of transferring prisoners from the facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

President Barack Obama in February released his plan to shutter the prison, including measures that would transfer 30 to 60 detainees, many of whom have never been charged with a crime, from Guantánamo to an unidentified high-security prison in the United States.

Haley told the committee that the Pentagon reached out last summer to tell her they were scouting the U.S. Naval Consolidated Brig in Hanahan, S.C., as a possible site to transfer the detainees. The facility lies five miles from North Charleston.

“Imagine my surprise,” she said. “Not only was it against federal law (…) but why would anyone want to put terrorists in Charleston?”

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. Haley said that saving federal dollars does not justify the risk.

“I come from a state where we balance our budget – I promise we can help you find the $85 million elsewhere to cut,” she said.

Moving detainees to a different zip code just shifts the target and creates imminent danger for nearby communities, Haley said. The South Carolina delegation has argued for months that this is especially a concern for the Charleston location, a national tourist destination with a metropolitan population of almost 700,000.

“Who’s going to come vacation in a state that is now known to have these terrorists?” she asked the subcommittee. “It would make Charleston one of the most high-profile terrorist targets in the world.”

Haley also said she was “tremendously concerned” about the impact on foreign relations for her state, citing the plants that international manufacturing giants Boeing, Mercedes-Benz and Volvo have in the Charleston area.

“How am I to tell these companies that they will be sharing an address with the most heinous and dangerous terrorists on earth?” she asked. “The truth is I can’t. And I won’t.”

The governor said that the administration’s main reasons for shuttering the facility – that the prison is used as propaganda for recruitment by terrorist organizations –won’t be solved by transferring them.

“Terrorists do not need a jail to hate us,” she said. “They hate us all on their own.”

Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., who sits on the subcommittee and introduced the governor at Thursday’s hearing, introduced a resolution in February to authorize a lawsuit against the Obama administration if it transfers detainees from Guantanamo. The 2016 National Defense Authorization Act signed by the president prohibits transferring the prisoners to the United States, and next year’s bill, which is currently being drafted by Congress, keeps the same language.

On Thursday, Duncan said he was baffled that the overwhelmingly negative response from South Carolinians and their leaders did not halt the administration’s proposal.

“That should be the end of the discussion,” Duncan told McClatchy. “The fact that the Obama Administration hasn’t even had conversations with state leaders shows an alarming level of arrogance from the White House.”

Duncan said that, like Haley, he has been fielding calls from anxious constituents.

“I haven’t had anybody contact me saying, ‘You need to chill out,’” Duncan told McClatchy. “If you polled people in South Carolina they’d say ‘heck no.’ I think the administration ought to listen to the states, the governor, the legislature, the delegation – we’re all saying no.”

Haley became a nationally recognized figure after leading her state through the aftermath of a shooting by a white supremacist at a Charleston, South Carolina, church last summer that left nine black parishioners dead. She said that keeping a homegrown terrorist, shooter Dylann Roof, at a secure facility in the state did not mean South Carolina wanted to handle more.

“South Carolinians looked hate in the eye last year, we know what that hate is and we know what that fear feels like and our state is still recovering from that,” she told reporters after the meeting. “So the idea that you would bring additional terrorists for the crimes that they’ve committed and put them in South Carolina, put them in Charleston, what we call the Holy City, it just doesn’t make sense.”

The state’s Republican delegation in Washington has been very vocal in its opposition to the president’s proposal for months. Sen. Tim Scott visited the Cuba prison last year, and Sen. Lindsey Graham has called the president’s proposal to close Guantanamo “gibberish.” Rep. Joe Wilson cosponsored an amendment that requires the next president to provide a detailed plans for the future of the facility and its detainees.

The Pentagon also surveyed 12 other domestic sites for “Guantánamo North,” including the Disciplinary Barracks in Fort Leavenworth, Kan., and the country’s highest-security prison, the Federal Correctional Complex in Florence, Colo., which has been dubbed the “Alcatraz of the Rockies.”

Human rights groups also oppose transferring Guantanamo prisoners to the United States, but for different reasons.

Groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have long said that transferring detainees could worsen their existing conditions, and criticized the facility a violation of international law. These plans to hold them indefinitely, without charge or trial, is the real problem, Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth wrote in a letter to the president last year. Transferring them to U.S. prisons would just “entrench a system of indefinite detention on U.S. soil that may be used by future administrations,” he wrote.

Closing the prison was one of Obama’s main campaign promises in 2008, but once he entered office it was quickly eclipsed by more pressing issues. At the beginning of his second term in 2013, detainees engaged in a series of hunger strikes that brought the issue back into the public spotlight. The facility was opened in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks as a way to keep suspected terrorists off the battlefield.

Obama has reduced the number of detainees at Guantánamo from 241 to 80 during his time in office. The most recent transfer occurred on April 16, when nine prisoners were sent to Saudi Arabia. Nine detainees have died in custody.

Vera Bergengruen: 202-383-6036, @verambergen