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.
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.”
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.