Republican lawmakers sharply criticized the Obama administration’s plan to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, dismissing it as a "vague menu of options" that fails to recommend any alternative sites in the United States to house terrorist suspects still held at the military-run prison in Cuba.
President Barack Obama made closing the facility one of his national security priorities after taking office in 2009, but his efforts have run up against fierce resistance in Congress to transferring the detainees to U.S. soil. The plan released Tuesday, required by the fiscal 2016 defense authorization bill (PL 114-92), will likely do little to help Obama meet his goal during the closing days of his administration.
Still, the president sought to portray the proposal submitted to Congress as the right thing to do, saying the plan was about more than just the current crop of detainees or shuttering the prison facility.
This is about closing a chapter in our history,” he said. “It reflects the lessons that we’ve learned since 9/11 — lessons that need to guide our nation going forward.”
Despite the president’s lofty rhetoric, the plan — as expected — fell flat with top GOP lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain said Congress has waited for years for the administration’s proposal and “what we received today is a vague menu of options, not a credible plan for closing Guantanamo.”
“The President has still yet to say how and where he will house both current and future detainees, including those his administration has deemed as too dangerous to release,” the Arizona Republican said in a statement. “Rather than identify specific answers to those difficult questions, the President has essentially passed the buck to the Congress.”
McCain has said he would try to sell the administration’s plan, if he agreed with it. But without specific details that he says the president once promised him, McCain has said he won’t be able to sway his colleagues to support closure.
On the House side, Armed Services Chairman Mac Thornberry was equally dismissive of the administration’s proposal.
“What the President submitted today is more press release than a plan," Thornberry said in a statement. "Among the information missing is the proposed location for a new detention facility."
The Texas Republican and the White House were at odds over compliance with the law, which Thornberry said requires the administration to recommend a specific U.S. facility.
But Navy Cmdr. Gary Ross, a Pentagon spokesman, said the administration was adhering to Sec. 1032 of the NDAA.
"We are constrained by law from undertaking design or detailed planning for a U.S.-based facility, which hinders our ability to develop precise cost estimates. However, we reviewed a number of possible locations," Ross told CQ. "Rather than initiate a debate about the merits of any particular location, we believe it is important to seek a dialogue with Congress and establish parameters for a U.S.-based detention facility."
There are currently 91 detainees held at Guantanamo, down from a one-time high of nearly 800. The administration says 35 of the remaining detainees have been determined eligible for transfer to a third country, which would potentially leave 56 detainees to be moved to a new facility in the U.S. if the White House plan is enacted.
The administration’s proposal says it identified 13 potential sites in the United States to house the detainees, including federal, Department of Defense and state correctional facilities, but did not name any of the locations.
The plan touted the financial savings from shuttering Guantanamo and transferring the remaining detainees to a U.S. facility. It put the fiscal 2015 operational costs for Guantanamo at $445 million, and said that maintaining the facility going forward would require another $225 million in investments.
However, holding between 30 and 60 detainees at a U.S.-based facility, the plan said, would cut costs by between $140 and $180 million annually, compared to fiscal 2015 costs. It noted that one-time costs for construction, security enhancements and transportation, among other things, would cost between $290 million and $475 million. It expects those costs to be offset within three to five years.
Administration officials also said closing the facility would eliminate what they say is the prison’s potent propaganda value for terrorist recruiters, make the country safer, and remove a black mark from the nation’s moral ledger.
“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.”
The stakes are undeniably high for Obama, who reiterated his hope to close Guantanamo during his final State of the Union address in January.
“It's expensive, it's unnecessary, and it only serves as a recruitment brochure for our enemies,” Obama said. “There's a better way.”
Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter has said he would rather not leave the task of closing Guantanamo to his successor, but he also has been less than optimistic at the chances the facility will be shuttered by January 2017.
“We need the help and support of Congress. I hope we're getting it. I'm working on it,” Carter said. “I think it would be a good thing for the country on balance.”
But without McCain’s blessing, the administration has almost no chance of convincing a GOP-controlled Congress in the waning days of Obama’s presidency.
Selecting a specific site is probably the most difficult part of shuttering Guantanamo, with lawmakers in potentially affected states already ramping up their not-in-my-backyard rhetoric.
Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas, which is home to the Fort Leavenworth prison that is believed to be one of the sites under consideration, said “the absence of a specific recommended an alternative location proves that there is no suitable location.”
“The Congress and the American people are against the President’s desire to move these terrorists to the heart of any American community,” Roberts said in a statement. “It is against the law. Like most of the President’s attempts to skirt the law and enact his agenda, doubtlessly this action will end up in the courts.”
The president’s proposal did receive the backing from many Democrats, however, including two prominent voices on foreign policy and intelligence matters: Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Adam B. Schiff, both of California.
John T. Bennett contributed to this report.