President Obama on Tuesday urged lawmakers to lift obstacles to closing the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba as he presented to Congress a long-awaited roadmap for shutter a facility he said symbolized the excesses that following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
“This is about closing a chapter in our history ,” said Obama, flanked by Vice President Biden and Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter, in remarks at the White House. “It reflects the lessons that we’ve learned since 9/11, lessons that need to guide our nation going forward.”
But Obama’s blueprint, which provided some detail to earlier White House plans to move up to 60 prisoners to the mainland United States for trial or detention,was met with immediate condemnation from Capitol Hill.
Previewing the plan earlier in the morning, officials said the document submitted to Congress outlined costs associated with housing prisoners in facilities within the United States. Officials said 30 to 60 detainees were expected to be brought to U.S. facilities if the plan is approved. Some of them would continue through slow-moving military commissions; others probably would be detained indefinitely without trial.
The Obama administration also is resettling overseas other prisoners, who are deemed to pose little security risk. Since he took office in 2009, Obama has resettled 147 Guantanamo prisoners overseas.
The prison now houses 91 detainees, down from a high of nearly 800 under former President George. W. Bush. Of those remaining, 35 have been cleared for transfer to allied nations. Ten are in some stage of a military trial process.
But Obama cannot act without support from Congress. To allow the closure plan to move forward, lawmakers would have to alter current laws that prohibit the administration from spending any money on bringing detainees to the United States.
In the face of security concerns, White House officials have tried to make a fiscal case for closing the prison, which they say costs taxpayers too much money.
According to the plan, which was posted on the Defense Dept. website, it will cost between $290 million and $475 million to prepare a new facility in the United States and transfer detainees there. But officials estimated that within three to five years the lower operating costs of a U.S. facility with fewer detainees would “generate at least $335 million in net savings over 10 years and up to $1.7 billion in net savings over 20 years.”
They conceded however that the budgetary estimates are rough, in part because officials are not able to spend money on planning for closing the facility.
The document was met with immediate condemnation from Capitol Hill.
Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), who had been one of the few senior Republicans who expressed any openness to closing the prison, said the plan failed to address important questions and “passed the buck” to Congress.
“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,” McCain said in statement. “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.”
The issue will likely feature in the lead-up to November’s presidential elections. On Tuesday, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) called Obama’s plan “dangerous.”
Obama declined to address whether he would try to close the prison even if Congress opposes the plan presented on Tuesday.
For months, the president’s top advisors have hinted that the White House may try take executive action on Guantanamo, essentially going around Congress.