President Obama stands with Vice President Joe Biden and Defense Secretary Ash Carter Tuesday in the White House as he announces plans to close the military detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
President Barack Obama announced his official proposal to close the prison at Guantánamo Bay on Tuesday morning, leading off with a vigorous condemnation of the facility’s effect on U.S. national security.
“It undermines our standing in the world. It is viewed as a stain on our broader record of upholding the highest standards of rule of law,” Obama said in unveiling his plan. “As Americans, we pride ourselves on being a beacon to other nations, a model of the rule of law.”
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Obama stressed that support for closing the facility was bipartisan when he first took office, noting that former President George W. Bush and his 2008 opponent Sen. John McCain both wanted to do so. But he acknowledged that the “politics of this are tough,” even as he argued that concerns about the wisdom of allowing hardened terrorists on U.S. oil are overblown.
“I think a lot of the American people are worried about terrorism and, in their mind, the notion of having terrorists held in the United States instead of some distant place can be scary. But part of my message to the American people here is, we’re already holding a bunch of really dangerous terrorists in the United States because we threw the book at them,” Obama said. “And there have been no incidents. We’ve managed it just fine.”
Convicting terrorists in civilian courts and putting them in so-called supermax facilities, Obama said, “works just fine,” listing a number of attackers and would-be attackers who had been tried and held in the continental United States.
Addressing longstanding opposition to the plan in Congress, Obama chalked it up to public fears that were being “fanned oftentimes by misinformation.”
“If it were easy, it would have happened years ago, as I wanted, as I have been working to try to get done. But there remains bipartisan support for closing it. And, given the stakes involved for our security, this plan deserves a fair hearing,” he said — even in an election year.
Top Republicans were predictably unimpressed with Obama’s proposal, even though his administration is pitching its new plan as an attempt to reach a deal with Congress for shuttering the prison — and not as a precursor to unilateral action.
“Congress acted over and over again in a bipartisan way to reject the president’s desire to transfer dangerous terrorists to communities here in the United States,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said on the floor. “The president signed all these prohibitions, and his attorney general recently confirmed that it is illegal — illegal for the president to transfer any of these terrorists into the United States.”
McCain, who chairs the Armed Services Committee, said the panel would “closely scrutinize and hold hearings on the details of what the President submitted today, but we can say now with confidence that the President has missed a major chance to convince the Congress and the American people that he has a responsible plan to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility.”
Rather than identify where specifically the administration would keep current and future detainees, McCain said, Obama “has essentially passed the buck to the Congress.”
House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said Congress has been unequivocal and that the plan changes nothing.
“His proposal fails to provide critical details required by law, including the exact cost and location of an alternate detention facility,” Ryan said in a statement. “Congress has left no room for confusion. It is against the law — and it will stay against the law — to transfer terrorist detainees to American soil. We will not jeopardize our national security over a campaign promise.”
Still, administration officials say they believe they can get the prison closed before the end of Obama’s presidency.
“We looked for options that could be ready in 2016,” said an administration official who briefed reporters ahead of the plan’s release.
The nine-page plan, which is being submitted to Congress on Tuesday, is an attempt to spark a conversation with lawmakers to lift restrictions on moving detainees from the prison at the military base in Cuba to U.S. domestic soil, senior administration officials said.
The White House will seek to entice lawmakers by portraying the plan as a money saver, saying it would cost $65 million to $85 million less per year to hold Guantánamo prisoners in facilities in the United States. Onetime costs of $290 million to $475 million to upgrade existing U.S. facilities or build new facilities would be recouped in three to five years, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Sites in the United States “would require significant security upgrades to cells, construction of or upgrades to medical facilities, additional surveillance equipment, and sensitive compartmented information facilities for classified work,” the report says.
There are now 91 prisoners remaining at Guantánamo. Of those, 35 are eligible to be transferred to third countries, and administration officials said they expected those transfers to happen in the “next several months.” That leaves fewer than 60 prisoners who the administration wants to bring to facilities in the United States, including 46 who the administration now deems ineligible for prosecution but too dangerous to release.
The plan does not endorse — or even name — any specific sites. Instead, it includes general cost estimates for bringing detainees to facilities in the continental United States, saying there are 13 potential options. Pentagon officials have evaluated potential sites including a naval facility in Charleston, South Carolina, the Army-run prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and the federal supermax penitentiary in Florence, Colorado.
The report also says officials concluded a single site would be best, rather than holding the detainees at multiple sites.
The administration officials declined to say whether they believe Obama has authority as commander in chief to unilaterally transfer the prisoners to U.S. soil, saying their efforts now were on working with Congress to lift restrictions.
Last year’s National Defense Authorization Act prohibits detainees from being moved to U.S. soil, part of a web of restrictions intended to prevent the president from shuttering the prison without congressional consent.
“We are really urging legislators to work with us,” an administration official told reporters. “Time is of the essence here.”
Republican presidential candidates uniformly denounced the president’s plan, even before he unveiled it.
“Well, I haven’t seen the plan, but I don’t favor closing Gitmo. I don’t understand it,” Ohio Gov. John Kasich said in an interview on Fox News’ “America’s Newsroom.” “Look, these are people, some of whom are the worst of the worst. And why would we send them into our country? I just don’t understand it.”
Recalling that Obama promised during his 2008 presidential campaign to close the prison, Kasich said he “profoundly” disagrees with the proposal.
Ben Carson criticized the plan in his own way.
“If you think it’s better to kill people than to capture them and obtain information from them, then I guess you like this idea,” he told MSNBC ahead of the announcement.
Sen. Marco Rubio condemned Obama’s plan and announced he was co-sponsoring the Naval Station Guantanamo Bay Protection Act, a bill to prevent the facility from being transferred to Cuban control without the approval of Congress.
“President Obama has given the Castro regime concession after concession, prioritizing political promises over national security, the integrity of America’s justice system, human rights and democracy,” Rubio said. “The Castro regime is already ripping the American people off and now it’s demanding the return of a U.S. naval station, which has been vital to Navy and Coast Guard operations in the Caribbean for over a century.”