WASHINGTON — Keeping the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay open is “contrary to our values,” President Obama said Tuesday, as he released a plan that examined 13 potential sites for transferring the suspected terrorists but did not propose any specific location.
His plan sets up a last-year confrontation with Congress about a campaign promise made eight years ago. Terrorists use Guantanamo as propaganda to recruit, and maintaining it harms U.S. national security, he said.
The plan has three elements beyond closing the prison, Obama said. More detainees will be safely transferred, reviewing the threat posed by detainees who are not eligible for transfer, and identifying those eligible for military trials.
“This plan has my full support,” Obama said.
Obama said closing Guantanamo was something his Republican predecessor, George W. Bush, supported, as did his 2008 Republican challenge, Sen. John McCain of Arizona. Since then, however, the politics have got in the way, he said.
Obama said he was “very clear-eyed” about the challenges of closing Guantanamo. “If it were easy it would have happened years ago,” he said.
McCain, who now chairs the Armed Services Committee, called the plan flimsy and said his committee would hold hearings on it soon.
“What we received today is a vague menu of options, not a credible plan for closing Guantanamo, let alone a coherent policy to deal with future terrorist detainees,” McCain said in a statement. “After years of rhetoric, the president has still yet to say how and where he will house both current and future detainees, including those his administration has deemed as too dangerous to release.”
McCain said Obama had 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.”
The plan does not indicate the prisons in the United States under consideration to transfer detainees, Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook said in a statement.
“The administration seeks an active dialogue with Congress on this issue and looks forward to working with Congress to identify the most appropriate location as soon as possible,” Cook said.
The report looked at existing facilities in South Carolina, Kansas and Colorado, as well as new facilities at unnamed military bases across the country.
It would cost $290 million to $475 million for the Department of Defense to renovate an existing state or federal prison, which would be dedicated to holding only Defense detainees, the official said. But the Pentagon estimates it could save $65 million to $85 million a year, recouping the one-time costs in about five years, though the official said the numbers are “somewhat rough and notional” because Congress has not appropriated the money necessary to do a complete site assessment.
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Monday that the Pentagon report “will make a compelling case that closing the prison is clearly in our national security interest, but also will reflect the need for the United States government to be a good steward of taxpayer dollars.”
There are 91 detainees remaining in the prison; each one costs more than $3 million per year.
“There is far too much money that is spent to operate that prison when there are more cost-effective alternatives available. And we certainly would like to work with the Congress to make those alternatives a reality because we know that those alternatives don’t weaken our national security. In fact, they strengthen it. They enhance it,” Earnest said. “And it would take away — by closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay — a chief recruiting tool that we know is used by terrorist organizations about the world.”
The plan, released Tuesday morning, anticipates that a “limited number” of detainees will not be eligible for transfer to other countries
“For these detainees, the administration intends to work with the Congress to relocate them from the Guantanamo Bay detention facility to an appropriate site in the continental United States while continuing to identify other appropriate and lawful dispositions,” the plan says.
Guantanamo Bay, located on the eastern edge of Cuba, has housed prisoners taken captive in war on terror since 2002. Since it exists on a base on Cuban soil but held by the United States under a 113-year-old lease, the prisoners are in what some human rights organizations call a “legal black hole.”
But transferring them to U.S. soil would not necessarily change their legal status. A previous legal opinion from the Pentagon found that the 2001 legislation authorizing the global war on terror allows them to be held as combatants as long as hostilities remain.
There were 242 detainees still in the Guantanamo Bay prison when Obama took office in 2009, down from a high of almost 700. That number has dwindled over the years as the Pentagon has transferred lower-risk detainees to other countries — meaning that the prisoners who remain tend to be considered higher security risks.
Of the 91 detainees remaining, 35 are eligible to be transferred to other countries as long as those countries can demonstrate that they can hold the prisoners without risk. Another 10 await trial by a military court, and 46 are still being evaluated.
Current law prohibits the president from transferring the Guantanamo Bay detaineesto U.S. soil, where there are only a handful of maximum-security prisons deemed appropriate to house them. Congress also added a provision to the defense policy bill signed by Obama last year requiring the administration to put forward a plan for transferring the remaining detainees to prisons in the United States. Tuesday is the deadline for that report.
Originally posted 2016-03-23 00:18:47.