Obama’s Gitmo Closure Plan: What’s New and Where the Problems Are

President Barack Obama walks up to the podium before speaking in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2016.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

AA Font size + Print

President Barack Obama walks up to the podium before speaking in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2016.

The White House’s plan gives Congress 13 different sites to choose from—and just added a lot of fuel to an already heated topic in a national security election year.

The Obama administration has spent the better part of its two terms quietly working on how to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. President Barack Obama finally presented that plan, which was drafted by the Pentagon and endorsed by the president, to Congress on Tuesday.

But it’s an election year and Obama’s announcement was as much targeted at U.S. voters as it was to skeptical lawmakers who required the president to make the first move toward closing the prison by drafting and presenting a plan. 

“The politics of this are tough,” he said. “I think a lot of the American public are worried about terrorism, and in their mind the notion of having terrorists held in the United States rather than in 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 here in the United States because we threw the book at them. And there have been no incidents. We’ve managed it just fine.”

The closure plan doesn’t endorse a specific facility stateside, Obama said, it merely gives an outline of the options. The plan includes 13 locations, including “the Brig” at Charleston; the “Supermax” facility in Colorado, as well as a nearby medium-security facility; Army facilities at Fort Leavenworth; a possible site in Illinois, and about a half-dozen unspecified U.S. military bases—so-called “green-build sites,” as officials referred to them.

The White House has not released the full list of sites to the public, a move believed to be designed to limit political fallout, as the prospect of moving “Gitmo” prisoners to the continental United States is incredibly contentious.

I find it telling that the White House has either failed to work out these important details or they know, but refuse to disclose them, to the American public.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas

Also missing from the plan was any workaround for restrictions preventing the transfer of detainees to the mainland, a law Congress passed in November. Many lawmakers latched onto this ambiguity in statements on Tuesday (more on that below), pointing out that Attorney General Loretta Lynch will have to step in to sort out the fine print on any way ahead for the 30 to 60 estimated detainees on track for continued detention and eventual review.

Despite that big unanswered question, Obama praised the cost savings in the Pentagon’s calculations, one of his team’s top talking points in selling the idea to Republicans. The new plan would save as much as $85 million a year, he said. Administration officials put the estimate at between $65 to 86 million for a facility that currently costs roughly $445 million to operate. That means the upfront construction costs—which clock it at nearly $475 million—would be offset in three to five years, or by the time the next presidential election rolls around.

But Republicans aren’t waiting for that day as many wasted no time reviving familiar lines of opposition.

“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,” said Senate Armed Services Committee, or SASC, Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz. Many observers have considered the Colorado prison virtually the only politically viable location, and any plan to spread to multiple locations the Gitmo detainees military officials argue can never be released would require so much redundant security it would negate any proclaimed cost benefits.

“[Obama’s] proposal fails to provide critical details required by law, including the exact cost and location of an alternate detention facility,” House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., 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.”

This is about closing a chapter in our history. It reflects the lessons that we’ve learned since 9/11.
President Barack Obama

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, joined in first to ding the White House for playing politics with Guantanamo. “What the President submitted today is more press release than a plan,” he said Tuesday. “Among the information missing is the proposed location for a new detention facility. More than seven years after he first ordered the detention center at [Guantanamo Bay] closed, I find it telling that the White House has either failed to work out these important details or they know, but refuse to disclose them, to the American public. It suggests to me that the President is more interested in fulfilling a campaign promise at any cost, than in transparently addressing the risk associated with bringing terrorists to the United States.”

And on Monday, GOP Sens. Pat Roberts of Kansas, Tim Scott of South Carolina, and Colorado’s Cory Gardner issued a statement opposing any detainees staying in facilities in their states—which were each sites Pentagon officials surveyed late last summer. “Our states and our communities remain opposed to moving the world’s deadliest terrorists to U.S. soil,” they wrote. “The terrorists at Guantanamo Bay are where they should remain—at Guantanamo Bay.”

Republicans weren’t the only ones speaking up Tuesday. Some Democrats like ranking Democratic SASC member Jack Reed of Rhode Island came out in support of the plan, calling the facility “a symbolic hindrance to bringing terrorists to justice and weakens counter-terrorism cooperation with our allies.”

“The rule of law and due process are fundamental American values,” said Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., on Twitter. “Continued indefinite detentions at #Guantanamo undermine our Constitution.”

Human rights activists, too, spoke out against the plan on Tuesday. The group Amnesty International flagged concerns a stateside move would shift and not stop the U.S. practice of indefinite detention. Any such move, they said, would set a “dangerous precedent … that would be a devastating blow to the principles of criminal justice.” A fair trial is one thing, they said. But “Guantánamo and the military commissions have not— and cannot—provide that justice.”

But White House officials insist closing the prison and eliminating a symbol of anti-American sentiment is a national security imperative. Look no further than the orange jumpsuits that the Islamic State group uses in their execution videos, senior administration officials said Tuesday.

Closing Guantanamo “is not just about dealing with the current group of detainees, which is a complex piece of business because of the manner in which they were originally apprehended and what happened,” Obama said. “This is about closing a chapter in our history. It reflects the lessons that we’ve learned since 9/11—lessons that need to guide our nation going forward.”

The facility held some 800 detainees when it first opened after the attacks of Sept. 11. Today it holds 91—35 of whom are eligible for transfer to another country; 10 are in some phase of the military commission process; 46 subject to the law of detention (i.e., considered some of the “baddest of the bad”); and the remaining 22 were initially referred for prosecution, but administration officials predicted another look at their status “is probably going to have to take place, provided Congress lets the plan go forward.”

With an election year well under way and the White House having recently expanded its counterterrorism strikes against the Islamic State to Afghanistan and Libya, few expect a Republican-controlled Congress to let this issue go anywhere. Well, there is one place you’re certain hear about it: political ads this campaign season.

Close [ x ] More from DefenseOne

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from DefenseOne.com.
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Software-Defined Networking

    So many demands are being placed on federal information technology networks, which must handle vast amounts of data, accommodate voice and video, and cope with a multitude of highly connected devices while keeping government information secure from cyber threats. This issue brief discusses the state of SDN in the federal government and the path forward.

  • Military Readiness: Ensuring Readiness with Analytic Insight

    To determine military readiness, decision makers in defense organizations must develop an understanding of complex inter-relationships among readiness variables. For example, how will an anticipated change in a readiness input really impact readiness at the unit level and, equally important, how will it impact readiness outside of the unit? Learn how to form a more sophisticated and accurate understanding of readiness and make decisions in a timely and cost-effective manner.

  • Cyber Risk Report: Cybercrime Trends from 2016

    In our first half 2016 cyber trends report, SurfWatch Labs threat intelligence analysts noted one key theme – the interconnected nature of cybercrime – and the second half of the year saw organizations continuing to struggle with that reality. The number of potential cyber threats, the pool of already compromised information, and the ease of finding increasingly sophisticated cybercriminal tools continued to snowball throughout the year.

  • A New Security Architecture for Federal Networks

    Federal government networks are under constant attack, and the number of those attacks is increasing. This issue brief discusses today's threats and a new model for the future.

  • Information Operations: Retaking the High Ground

    Today's threats are fluent in rapidly evolving areas of the Internet, especially social media. Learn how military organizations can secure an advantage in this developing arena.


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.