President Barack Obama released his long- awaited plan for closing the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, saying transferring as many as 60 of the detainees captured during the war on terrorism would eliminate a recruiting tool for extremists and save the U.S. money.
“For many years it’s been clear that our detention facility at Guantanamo Bay does not advance our fight against terrorism,” Obama said in a statement at the White House.
The continued existence of the prison “doesn’t not advance our national security, it undermines it,’’ he said.
The proposal, demanded by lawmakers who have resisted Obama’s attempts to close the facility, calls for spending up to $475 million to transfer 30 to 60 of the detainees to facilities in the U.S. There are 13 potential sites that could be used for the prisoners, but the plan outlined by the Pentagon doesn’t identify a specific location.
The administration says it would work with Congress to identify the most appropriate place to hold the detainees.
Lawmakers from both parties have balked at Obama’s calls to close the prison since he made a campaign promise to do so in 2008. The president and his aides have argued the detention center, opened in 2002, has served as recruiting tool for extremist groups.
Obama on Tuesday called it “a stain” on the reputation of the U.S. for upholding human rights.
Closing the prison at Guantanamo would eventually save the U.S. as much as $85 million per year, administration officials told reporters Tuesday. The facility now costs about $445 million a year to operate.
There are 91 detainees currently being held and 35 are eligible for transfer to other countries. The rest are either being prosecuted through the military commission process or have been deemed too dangerous for release. Obama said the U.S. will accelerate reviews of remaining detainees to see if they still pose a significant threat.
The Defense Department surveyed several U.S. sites last year for transferring the prisoners, including state and federal prisons and military installations in South Carolina, Kansas and Colorado.
House Speaker Paul Ryan has pointed out that Democrats joined Republicans to pass a bill barring the transfer of Guantanamo detainees to the U.S. He highlighted a January letter sent to Congress by Lt. General William Mayville Jr., the director of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, which states that current law prohibits using funds to transfer Guantanamo detainees to the U.S.
“This is against the law.” Ryan said in a Feb. 11 news conference. “If the president takes illegal action, we will be ready to respond.”
House Republicans have retained a law firm to prepare for a potential lawsuit against the White House if Obama seeks to close the prison with an executive order.
"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," Obama said, unveiling a plan to close the facility, while trying to reassure Americans that suspected jihadists could be safely held in the United States.
Reaction was swift among conservatives and Republicans in Congress in opposition to any effort to close the Gitmo prison.
"This has been a goal from day one," U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa said Tuesday morning on Fox News.
"The fact that he's willing to do it in violation of an explicit law probably has two things, one he has very little to lose in his opinion. He doesn't believe the American people will impeach him and with the death of justice Scalia he might view that the supreme court will back him by a 4-4 decision, the liberals letting him do it even if it's a clear violation of the law."
In a statement released late Monday, Sens. Tim Scott, Pat Roberts and Cory Gardner reminded the president that Congress passed a law in November prohibiting the transfer of prisoners detained at Guantanamo to the mainland.
"Military leaders have repeatedly said they will not break the law to close the facility and relocate its prisoners on the mainland, which would be yet another of the administration’s misguided national security decisions. With ever-growing threats abroad and our increased efforts to combat ISIS, we need a place to house these terrorists, and that place is not in our communities, nor back on the battlefield," the statement reads.
“This plan is expected to present the options for the relocation of Guantanamo, but regardless of whether it is Kansas, South Carolina, or Colorado, none of these options are acceptable. Our states and our communities remain opposed to moving the world’s deadliest terrorists to U.S. soil. The terrorists at Guantanamo Bay are where they should remain – at Guantanamo Bay.”
Obama also has faced opposition from within his own administration, with the Pentagon accused of slow pedaling transfers and overstating closure costs.
The Pentagon has struggled to find suitable facilities on the mainland to house prisoners who can’t be transferred to other countries and has wrestled with the cost of the plan.
"I’m not confident," White House Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters Monday when asked if the plan would be well-received by lawmakers.
"We’ve seen many members of Congress express their opposition to considering the kinds of necessary steps to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, he said.
He referred a question about whether the administration would meet the Feb. 23 deadline for a plan to the Defense Department.
Details of Obama's plan are unlikely to be revolutionary.
He has long argued that many Guantanamo prisoners should be transferred overseas and some should be tried by military courts.
A small number -- those deemed too dangerous to release but too difficult to prosecute -- would be held in the United States.
Both as a candidate and while president, Obama promised to close Guantanamo, arguing indefinite detention and "enhanced interrogation" violated the nation's values and handed militants a potent recruiting tool.
The administration is looking at military facilities like Fort Leavenworth, Kansas or the US Navy brig in Charleston, South Carolina as possible destinations for inmates. Those locations, however, may be met with objections from local politicians.
Efforts to transfer prisoners overseas have been stymied by unrest in Yemen -- a likely destination for many -- and by recidivism among those already released.
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