Obama's Plan to Close Gitmo Faces Uphill Fight in Congress

Guantanamo guards keep watch over a cell block with detainees in Camp 6 maximum-security facility, at Guantanamo Bay U.S. NavalBase, Cuba.

President Barack Obama and the Pentagon put forward a work-in-progress plan Tuesday to close the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, detention facility "once and for all" -- a proposal that was vague on the costs and legalities of transferring an undetermined number of prisoners to the U.S.

The plan developed by Defense Secretary Ashton Carter as part of the proposed fiscal 2016 National Defense Authorization Act and endorsed by White House already faced already strong and growing opposition in Congress and appeared to offer little chance that Obama would fulfill his 2008 campaign pledge to close "Gitmo" before leaving office.

In a background conference call, a senior administration official conceded that some of the remaining 91 detainees at Guantanamo would likely still be there when Obama leaves office on Jan. 20, but the proposal could at least resolve the issue and "take it off the plate of the next president."

Appearing in the Oval Office shortly after the plan was released, Obama acknowledged that closing Guantanamo would face an uphill fight in Congress, given the politics of an election year. But he said that "keeping this facility open is contrary to our values. It undermines our standing in the world."

Guantanamo continued to be a rallying cause and a recruitment tool in terrorist propaganda, while harming "partnerships with our allies and other countries," Obama said. "This is about closing a chapter in our history. Keeping this facility open is contrary to our values. It undermines our standing in the world," he said."

Despite the difficulties of finding or building a facility for the detention of Guantanamo prisoners in the U.S., "we can ensure our security and save the American taxpayers a whole lot of money" by enacting the plan, the president said.

"I am clear-eyed about the hurdles of closing Guantanamo," said Obama, who was joined by Carter and Vice President Joe Biden for the announcement in the Oval Office. "The politics of this are tough. The notion of having terrorists in the U.S., rather than in some distant place, can be scary," he said, but "this plan deserves a fair hearing, even in an election year."

Obama said there was some evidence of bipartisan support for the plan, but Republicans were nearly solid in opposition.

Sen. John McCain, a Republican from Arizona and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and one of the few Republicans who has pressed for a plan to close Guantanamo, said Obama's proposal failed to meet the mark.

"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," he said in a statement.

"The president has essentially passed the buck to the Congress," McCain said. He pledged to hold hearings on the plan "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."

Sen. Jack Reed, a Democrat from Rhode Island and the ranking Democrat on the defense panel, pressed for support of Obama's plan. "Responsibly closing the detention facility at GITMO and transferring detainees won't be easy, but it is the right thing to do," he said in a statement.

"Gitmo should have been closed by now.  Even George W. Bush wanted to close it.  And let's be clear: closing Gitmo does not mean releasing anyone, setting bad guys free, or doing anything other than putting them in a highly secure prison and on trial under the right military tribunal system or legal process," Reed said.

On the campaign trail, Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump has repeatedly denounced proposals to shut down Guantanamo as another sign of Obama's weakness.

Last week in South Carolina, Trump said it was "ridiculous" that the Pentagon was looking at the U.S. Naval Consolidated Brig at the Naval Weapons Station near Charleston as a potential site for the relocation of Guantanamo detainees. "We are totally against it," Trump said.

As a senator, Hillary Clinton favored closing Guantanamo while hedging on whether prisoners should be relocated to the U.S. During the campaign, Clinton has said she would await presentation of the plan before taking a position.

Of the current 91 remaining prisoners at Guantanamo, 35 have been approved by Pentagon for transfer to other countries and another 10 were in the process of being tried before military commissions, the senior administration officials said in the background briefing.

Considering delays in the transfers and the work of the military commissions, the administration officials said about 30-60 detainees would be left in Guantanamo by the end of this year unless they could be relocated to the U.S.

The officials said that 13 potential sites in the U.S. had been looked at by the Pentagon, including state and federal jails and military bases, but they declined to name them all.

The officials said it had not yet been decided whether to house the prisoners at existing facilities or to build a new one. Even if the prisoners were sent to a state or federal facility, they would continue to be guarded by defense personnel, they said.

The officials also said it was unclear whether additional legal rights would accrue to those prisoners who were relocated to the U.S. since prosecution in the federal court system would then be an option.

The cost estimates for relocating prisoners to the U.S. were "somewhat rough and notional" because Congress has put roadblocks in the way of doing cost analysis, a senior official said, but "our current estimate is that we can do this more cheaply in the U.S. than in Guantanamo Bay."

The official said one Defense Department estimate was that keeping the prisoners in the U.S. rather than at Guantanamo would save about $68 million annually. Obama said the projected savings could reach $1.7 billion over 20 years.

Facilities known to have been reviewed by Pentagon last year included the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks and Midwest Joint Regional Corrections Facility at Leavenworth, Kansas; the Consolidated Naval Brig, Charleston, South Carolina; the Federal Correctional Complex, which includes the medium, maximum and supermax facilities in Florence, Colorado; and the Colorado State Penitentiary II in Canon City, Colorado, also known as the Centennial Correctional Facility.

Last month, Canon City Mayor Tony Greer told National Public Radio, "I suppose I would prefer not to have war criminals or war prisoners in our community. On the other hand, we are a prison community. And if I were assigned the task from Washington to choose a site, certainly this would be on my short list."

Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook said, "The plan does not endorse a specific facility to house Guantanamo detainees who cannot be safely transferred to other countries at this time. The administration seeks an active dialogue with Congress on this issue and looks forward to working with Congress to identify the most appropriate location as soon as possible."

However, he added in a statement, "Implementing this plan will enhance our national security by denying terrorists a powerful propaganda symbol, strengthening relationships with key allies and counterterrorism partners, and reducing costs.  As the President has said, it 'makes no sense' to keep open a facility that 'the world condemns and terrorists use to recruit."

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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