The Obama administration on Tuesday released its plan to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, but effectively acknowledged that the controversial facility likely will be open at the end of Obama’s presidency.
The report was notably short on specifics and effectively spelled out the various reasons why it would be difficult for Obama to bypass Congress, which banned detainees from being relocated to the United States, and issue an executive order to close the facility’s closure.
The report states that detainees could be transferred to one of 13 U.S. other prisons, but it doesn’t say which ones. It also doesn’t explain how the administration calculated the $475 million price tag for building a new facility in the U.S. to hold detainees. Nor did it explain why moving detainees to U.S. soil reduce criticism across the world that the U.S. should stop holding such prisoners all together.
Any construction of a new prison is unlikely to be completed in the next year, and any executive order would require funding and congressional approval. Moreover, none of the proposed costs associated with moving detainees to the U.S. are allocated in the current defense budget. For those reasons, the prison in Guantanamo is likely to remain open when Obama leave office in January 2017.
But administration officials who briefed reporters would not rule out that Obamat might issue an executive order to shut down the prison and move the detainees. The officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said he Obama would try to work with Congress on how to close the prison with an executive order.
Obama has said even before he took office that closing the facility was among his top priorities, but its continued use remains his most notable unfulfilled campaign promise. Obama’s frustration with Congress’ efforts to thwart closing the facility was clear on Tuesday in remarks at the White House, flanked by Vice President Joseph Biden and Secretary of Defense Ash Carter. Obama noted that during his presidency, closing the facility increasingly became a partisan issue: George W. Bush, he noted, wanted to close the facility, as well.
“Keeping this facility open is contrary to our values,” Obama said Tuesday, adding, “We have to change course.”
Congress’ frustration with the lack of specifics in the administration’s plan was immediately clear.
“Congress has waited for seven and a half years for President Obama to provide a plan to achieve his goal of closing the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay. 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,” John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee said in a statement. “Rather than identify specific answers to those difficult questions, the President has essentially passed the buck to the Congress.”
“Bringing terrorists—like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the 9/11 mastermind responsible for planning the horrific deaths of nearly 3,000 Americans—onto U.S. soil and to outside countries can only be characterized as dangerous and irresponsible at best,” Rep. Vern Buchanan, a Republican, said. “We cannot afford to release these hardened terrorists back onto the battlefield where they are able to rejoin terrorist networks and carry out horrific attacks.”
Far less than a plan, the report read as a summary of what had been done. Pentagon officials noted the lack of specifics. As one explained to The Daily Beast, “Read this with very low expectations.”
But Congress has been just as vague in alternative options, fighting any effort to bring detainees to prisons in the lawmakers’ districts. Some argue that detainees should be held indefinitely because they likely are to return to terrorist activity if released. The majority of those who’ve been held haven’t been charged.
According to administration officials, the recidivism rate of released detainees is roughly 20 percent for the more than 500 people who were been released during George W. Bush’s administration, and 10 percent for the 147 detainees released during the Obama administration.
As the report was released, there was another suspected instance of a former detainee returning to terrorism. On Tuesday, authorities in Spain arrested an unnamed ex-Gitmo detainee on charges he was part of a jihadi cell that sought to recruit fighters for the Islamic State group. The detainee was reportedly released from Guantanamo Bay in 2004, according to reports.
The latest proposal, which Congress demanded by today under the last National Defense Authorization Act, estimated that the additional $475 million cost for a new prison would be offset in as little as three years through the savings of detaining the prisoners in the U.S. and not in Cuba.
During fiscal year 2015, the Guantanamo prison cost $445 million to maintain. The report concludes that the U.S. could save as much as $85 million a year by moving the detainees to the U.S.
In all, there are 91 detainees at the facility now. Of those, 35 are on a list to be transferred to another country, once the U.S. finds one willing to take them, while another 46 have not been recommended for transfer. The remaining 10 have been charged or convicted in the military commissions system.
The administration estimates that as few as 40 detainees could end up in a U.S. facility.
Obama urged Congress to consider closing the facility, calling it a moral issue.
“I really believe there is an opportunity for progress. I believe we have an obligation to try,” Obama said.