As Search for ‘Gitmo North’ Heats Up, Lawmakers Go Full NIMBY
Even members of Congress who support Obama’s drive to close the prison don’t want the detainees coming to their districts.
“I oppose absolutely any plan to bring terrorists to Colorado,” read the Thursday night statement from Sen. Cory Gardner, a Republican whose state contains the “supermax” federal prison in Florence. “The Guantanamo facility houses some of the world’s worst international terrorists, and it’s critical that we keep them there. That this reckless and irresponsible idea is being considered at all by officials in the Obama Administration shows a careless disregard for the safety and security of Coloradans. I will do everything in my power to ensure it does not happen.”
Nor does Rep. Scott Peters, D-Calif., want Guantanamo detainees to come to the Naval Consolidated Brig in Miramar. “The prison at Guantanamo Bay is literally crumbling, and it costs almost $3 million per prisoner per year,” he said. “I supported giving our military commanders the flexibility to come up with a plan for moving prisoners from Guantanamo Bay, only if the proposed new location is a maximum security facility in a remote prison … [Miramar] does not fit that criteria.”
The early response of members of Congress and state officials to the Defense Department’s nascent survey of sites that could serve as a U.S. alternative if President Obama achieves his long-held goal of closing the military prison in Cuba eerily echoes the reaction to a similar effort in the beginning of his administration. But now, the stakes are higher and the time shorter as the administration finalizes a detailed plan to close Guantanamo, seeking to capitalize on a narrow window pried open by Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
Related: Beyond Guantanamo
In order to include in the plan estimates of the costs and requirements of a U.S. relocation, the Defense Department told Defense One it and the Department of Justice are working off a wide list of military and civilian sites, including many studied in an earlier effort. The inventory includes the military’s five regional prisons: Miramar; Ft. Leavenworth in Kansas; the Naval Consolidated Brigs in Charleston, S.C. and Chesapeake, Va.; and the Northwest Regional Correctional Facility at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Tacoma, Wash., as well as federal facilities such as the supermax in Florence.
McCain is pushing lawmakers to preserve a provision in the annual defense authorization bill that would change U.S. law barring such transfers to the U.S. and grant Obama the authority to close Gitmo — if his colleagues approve the plan. Judging by the initial reactions (or unresponsiveness) of lawmakers in these states, that lobbying effort isn’t going so well.
Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., ranking member of the Armed Services Committee, confirmed as much, saying Guantanamo is one of the remaining obstacles in the continuing negotiations over the bill. “I know that’s one of the issues we’re still talking about,” he said Wednesday.
When asked about the consideration of Chesapeake, Reed’s fellow Armed Services Democrat, Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, said he’d been “open to being supportive” of an earlier abandoned attempt by the Obama administration to move Chinese Uighurs from Guantanamo to his state.
“It’s all about details,” Kaine said. “It all depends on the circumstances. And I have not had a briefing yet about that but it wouldn’t surprise me that they’re looking at all kinds of options … no need to have an opinion on that unless it’s serious, and they haven’t contacted me yet, but it’s because — I assume — it’s not something they’re not necessarily contemplating imminently.”
In a telling example of the politics surrounding the issue, Gardner’s comments came Thursday night in a joint public statement with Republican Colorado Rep. Scott Tipton — after half a dozen requests for comment on Defense One’s report that the departments of Justice and Defense were considering the supermax for their survey.
Said Tipton, “Transferring some of the world’s most dangerous terrorists to our backyard places a target on Colorado. Any plan to move terrorists from Guantanamo Bay to Colorado is unacceptable and we will do everything possible to keep it from happening.”
The office of Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., said they hadn't been contacted about any potential visits and declined to comment on whether he'd support moving Guantanamo detainees to Chesapeake.
The offices of Democratic Sens. Michael Bennet, Colo.; Patty Murray, Wash.; Maria Cantwell, Wash.; Barbara Boxer, Calif.; and Dianne Feinstein, Calif., did not respond to repeated requests for comment. Other lawmakers from Kansas and South Carolina have already made their opposition clear.
Even South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, a rare Republican (and presidential candidate) who supports closing the military prison in Cuba, said he stands by this position — but not if it’s the Charleston brig. “If the detainees need to be moved, they must be moved to a maximum security location in a remote area far from heavily populated areas with vital infrastructure,” he said. “Charleston does not meet that criteria.”
McCain himself is growing frustrated.
“It depends on the plan and they still haven’t come forward with the plan,” McCain told reporters on Wednesday. “I asked them that six and a half years ago,” he said on the survey to give more detail on where and how much. “Several months ago, they told me, ‘We’ll be coming forward with a plan, Sen. McCain,’” he continued, saying that was the last time he sat down with administration officials. “I’m still holding my breath.”
This story has been updated.