More than seven years after he promised to shutter the U.S. detention center in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, President Obama has made what may be his last attempt to close the site by portraying it as a cost-cutting measure.
The Defense Department’s new closure plan calls for transferring cleared detainees, accelerating the review of possible transferees, moving from military tribunals to possible federal trials, and working with Congress to find a new detention site within the U.S.
Notably, the White House is not taking unilateral action on the issue. Attorney General Loretta Lynch and some of the Pentagon’s top generals and legal minds have opposed such an approach.
Speaking from the Roosevelt Room and flanked by Vice President Biden and Defense Secretary Ash Carter, Obama repeated his argument that the prison undermines the country’s national security and has tarnished America’s reputation around the world – the same line of analysis that has fallen on deaf ears on Capitol Hill, including when Democrats controlled Congress.
It appears that the only play left for the president is to appeal to congressional stinginess. He said the facility costs taxpayers around $450 million a year and that the site requires another $225 million in repairs and construction just to keep operating.
Obama’s plan would cost $290 million to $475 million to implement, but would save as much as $1.7 billion over 20 years.
There are 91 detainees in Guantanamo today. Of those, 35 have been approved for resettlement in another country. (It’s worth noting that the remaining prisoners are outnumbered by the 2,000 or so guards and prison staff at the facility, according to The Miami Herald.)
Obama again argued that the remaining prisoners can be safely housed at a U.S. site, and that by tweaking the military tribunal process -- which Obama called “very costly” -- to make it faster and moving some cases to federal courts, the country could save even more money.
“This plan deserves a fair hearing, even in an election year,” Obama said, even as he acknowledged that “the politics of this are tough.”
Predictably, the plan sparked an outcry from congressional Republicans.
"President Obama seems to be captured on one matter by one campaign promise he made in 2008," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said on the Senate floor on Tuesday.
Senate Armed Services Committee chair John McCain (R-AZ) also panned the proposal as “a vague menu of options, not a credible plan for closing Guantanamo, let alone a coherent policy to deal with future terrorist detainees.”
The lack of a specific alternative is “worrisome,” said House Armed Services Committee chair Mac Thornberry (R-TX).
However, both he and McCain promised to hold hearings on the administration’s strategy in the near future.
For his part, the president said is “absolutely committed” to closing the detention center.
“I don't want to pass this problem onto the next president whoever it is,” he said. “Let’s go ahead and get this thing done.”