WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama on Tuesday called for the closure of the Guantanamo Bay detention facility after delivering his long-awaited plan to Congress to achieve a goal that has long eluded his presidency.
The blueprint comes seven years after Obama made an Oval Office vow to permanently shutter the prison for enemy combatants, but it already faces objections from Republicans and legal obstacles they have placed to transferring Guantanamo detainees to U.S. prisons.
Obama nonetheless said emptying the prison would move the country past what he described as a troubled era of wartime behavior.
“The plan we’re putting forward today isn’t just about closing the facility at Guantanamo. It’s 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. This is about closing a chapter in our history,” he said during short remarks at the White House.
“Keeping this facility open is contrary to our values,” Obama said. “It undermines our standing in the world. It is viewed as a stain on our broader record of upholding the highest standards of rule of law.”
But Republicans in Congress wasted no time in voicing their opposition to the administration’s proposal.
Speaker of the House Paul Ryan said the President’s plan “fails to provide critical details required by law,” adding “It is against the law — and it will stay against the law — to transfer terrorist detainees to American soil.”
John McCain, Chairman of the Armed Services Committee, also criticized the strategy, saying it was “not a credible plan for closing Guantanamo, let alone a coherent policy to deal with future terrorist detainees.”
Obama outlined a blueprint that involves transferring the bulk of remaining detainees to other countries and moving the rest — who can’t be transferred abroad because they’re deemed too dangerous — to an as-yet-undetermined detention facility in the United States.
U.S. officials said Tuesday morning the plan would identify 13 potential U.S. sites for transfers.
The officials added, however, that funding restrictions prevented Pentagon planners from determining precise details for converting U.S. facilities into detention centers for accused terrorists. Since current law prevents using funds to close the prison, they weren’t able to conduct as thorough a cost calculation as they otherwise might have.
Options for housing prisoners in the U.S. include the federal Supermax prison in Florence, Colorado; the military prison in Leavenworth, Kansas; and the Naval Consolidated Brig in Charleston, South Carolina. Pentagon officials visited those sites last year to develop “prototype” plans for converting them into detention facilities.
The additional sites included in Tuesday’s plan include other federal and military prisons. The closure plan does not identify a specific facility, though congressional language mandating the plan called for a location to be specified.
The U.S. officials Tuesday said the plan would save the U.S. government between $65 million and $85 million per year compared to housing detainees at Guantanamo.
Obama on Tuesday cited the high costs of keeping prisoners at the Cuba facility as a reason for closing the prison, in a new argument the administration is making to press the case that Guantanamo should be shut.
Most Republican lawmakers, however, remain staunchly opposed to moving detainees into the United States and insisted upon language in two bills recently signed by Obama — the defense authorization and defense appropriations bills — that bars the transfer of Guantanamo detainees into the U.S.
Sen. John McCain, a rare Republican proponent of closing Guantanamo, still hammered Obama’s plan Tuesday as a “vague menu of options” for reaching that goal.
“The Senate Armed Services Committee will closely scrutinize and hold hearings on the details of what the President submitted today, but we can say now with confidence that the President has missed a major chance to convince the Congress and the American people that he has a responsible plan to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility,” McCain said.
Obama bemoaned the opposition to closing the facility, saying when he entered office there was bipartisan agreement on the issue.
“Because we had bipartisan support, I wanted to make sure that we did it right,” Obama said in explaining why it took so long to put a plan before Congress.
“I indicated that we would need to take our time to do it in a systematic way, and that we had examined all the options,” he continued. “And unfortunately during that period where we were putting the pieces in place to close it, what had previously been bipartisan support suddenly became a partisan issue. Suddenly many backed off because they were worried about the politics.”
However, many Republicans — and some Democrats — have long been wary of closing the facility and having to transfer remaining inmates.
Administration officials said Tuesday they were planning conversations with lawmakers in a bid to change minds, but the outcome remained hazy.
“We hope this will be the beginning of a sustained conversation,” one official said, conceding “it’s not entirely clear on how that conversation will play out.”
While White House officials have refused to rule out unilateral action to close the Guantanamo prison — and Obama said Tuesday he would use “all legal tools to deal with the remaining detainees” — others in the administration have said firmly that current law disallows any detainee transfers onto U.S. soil.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter, whose department worked for months to compile Tuesday’s plan, said on CNN last month, “It’s against the law now to establish another detention facility.”
“So, therefore, we have to get the support of Congress,” he told “GPS” host Fareed Zakaria.
Attorney General Loretta Lynch echoed that sentiment in November, arguing the law “currently doesn’t allow” detainees to be transferred to the United States, and said the option “is not, as I am aware of, going to be contemplated, given the legal prescriptions.”
Lee Wolosky, the U.S. Special Envoy for Guantanamo Closure, said last month that the State Department hoped to transfer another 34 detainees already approved for release by this summer. U.S. officials told CNN the State Department has either concluded or is in the final stages of agreements with several countries to resettle all of the 34.
With 10 of the remaining 91 detainees expected to undergo military tribunals, that leaves another 47 detainees who could be approved by an interagency review board to be sent home or to a third country.
Last month, 10 Yemenis held at Guantanamo were released and sent to Oman. All 10 were held in U.S. custody for at least a decade without being charged. It was the largest release of prisoners at the U.S. military detention center since 2009.
Oman has taken 20 detainees who are banned from going back to their home countries, more than any other of the 25 countries that have taken in detainees.
Another four inmates were sent away earlier last month, including an inmate released to his home country of Saudi Arabia, where the U.S. has hailed the government’s rehabilitation program.
More than half of the remaining detainees are Yemeni nationals. The administration is prohibited by law from transferring Guantanamo detainees back home, given the security situation in the country. Yemen is racked by civil war and home to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Three previously released Guantanamo detainees have gone on to join AQAP since leaving the facility.
U.S. officials compare the painstaking negotiations to resettle detainees to a game of chess, with Secretary of State John Kerry, and his predecessor Hillary Clinton before him, intimately involved in the discussions.
“This is hard,” Wolosky said in an interview with CNN. “It’s a difficult ask of the U.S. to make, to say please take these individuals whom the world has branded as terrorists. And frequently we have little to offer them in return, except the continued goodwill of the United States.”
U.S. officials expect that Obama, who is scheduled to visit Cuba next month, will be pressured by the regime there to return control of Guantanamo back to the island. A trio of Republican senators said Tuesday they were introducing a measure that would prevent Obama from ceding control of the facility back to Cuba without congressional approval.
But Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, said last week that returning Guantanamo to Cuba “is not on the table as a part of our discussions.”