President Barack Obama’s new proposal to close the U.S. military prison for alleged terrorists at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, appeared doomed to failure Tuesday as he and Republican lawmakers immediately engaged in fierce political skirmishes harking back to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
The specter of past torture also hung over the renewed debate, recalling a dark chapter in the presidency of George W. Bush.
While Obama extolled the record of federal civilian courts in convicting terrorists not held at Guantanamo, he acknowledged that “the manner in which they were originally apprehended and what happened” would make it difficult to prosecute some of the 91 detainees left at the military prison in Cuba.
Obama was referring to torture of alleged terrorists at CIA “black sites” in foreign countries before they were brought to Guantanamo, as documented in a December 2014 Senate report.
Even at Guantanamo, where military commission proceedings use more lenient evidence rules, the torture claims have caused years of delays in the trial of accused 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four other alleged plotters of the attacks that killed almost 3,000 people in New York and Washington.
Obama’s nine-page plan, which previous congressional legislation required to be submitted by Tuesday, would transfer 30 to 60 detainees currently at Guantanamo to an unidentified high-security prison in the United States at an estimated cost of $290 to $475 million.
“With this plan, we have the opportunity finally to eliminate a terrorist propaganda tool, to strengthen relationships with allies and partners, enhance our national security, and most importantly uphold the values that bind us as Americans,” Obama said in a short address minutes after the plan was released.
Obama pleaded for a fair hearing, and his aides expressed hope that Republicans would negotiate with the administration. But both sides launched biting attacks against the other fueled by election-year politics and the momentous question of which party will win the White House.
Obama accused GOP lawmakers of having fanned fears “oftentimes with misinformation” about moving dozens of alleged terrorists to a prison in the United States, and he said they’d made the task harder by imposing unnecessary restrictions.
Republicans, in turn, said Obama had waited almost to the end of his tenure to submit a plan, waiting until the final day of a congressionally imposed deadline, and that the proposal was vague without recommending a military or civilian prison on the mainland as the detainees’ new home.
Still worse, GOP leaders in the House and Senate claimed that Obama’s proposal endangered national security.
“Our military and intelligence services are trying to confront growing threats to our homeland, and simply cannot hand over this critical base, especially not as the end result of President Obama’s dangerous plan to release terrorists back into the battlefield or bring them to U.S. soil,” Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, a Republican presidential candidate, said.
Rubio and fellow Cuban-American Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, a Miami Republican, went so far as to assert that Obama’s secret agenda was to transfer the Guantanamo detainees in order to surrender the U.S. naval base to Cuba as part of his drive to normalize relations with the communist country.
“Once again, President Obama has put ideology over America’s national security,” Diaz-Balart said. “The return of the base at Guantanamo Bay is at the top of the Castro regime’s wish list.”
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest and his Pentagon counterpart, Peter Cook, flatly denied that Obama has any plans to give Cuba the strategically important base.
Rubio and Republican Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina introduced a bill to block Obama’s plan.
“President Obama’s aggressive push to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay is dangerous,” Burr said.
Obama acknowledged that the closure plan, which he campaigned on in 2008 and vowed to do in an executive order in January 2009 two days after taking office, would face stiff opposition in the Republican-controlled Congress, but he asked lawmakers to give consider it.
“Given the stakes involved for our national security, this plan deserves a fair hearing even in an election year,” Obama said.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, the Arizona Republican who Obama defeated in the 2008 presidential race, was virtually the only GOP leader who promised even to consider his plan to close Guantanamo.
Yet even McCain, who a decade ago urged Bush to shutter the military prison, was critical in pledging to “closely scrutinize and hold hearings on” the proposal.
“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.
The former Vietnam War POW added that “the president has essentially passed the buck to Congress.”
Republican operatives quickly signaled that they will try to use the divisive issue as a weapon in November. against Democratic incumbents they view as vulnerable.
The National Republican Congressional Committee, chaired by Rep. Greg Walden of Oregon, put out releases targeting Democratic incumbents it views as vulnerable, among them Reps. Ami Bera of Sacramento and John Garamendi of Walnut Grove, both in California.
“Ami Bera will have to choose whether to stand up for national security of stand with President Obama by voting to bring dangerous terrorists to U.S. soil,” Katie Martin, a committee spokeswoman, said.
Republican Rep. David Jolly of Indian Shores, Florida, said: “The president should focus on defeating terrorists, not accommodating them.”
Jolly noted that his February 2015 measure prohibiting Guantanamo from being closed or relinquished to the Cuban government was folded into the National Defense Authorization Act later in the year, a much broader bill that Congress passed and Obama signed into law.
Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, the No. 2 Republican in the House, said that as Obama sent his Guantanamo plan to Capitol Hill, Spanish and Moroccan police announced the arrest of a former Guantanamo detainee suspected of being part of an Islamic State cell in North Africa. Several other GOP lawmakers also cited one-time detainees who have returned to the fight against the United States.
Obama fired back, noting that Bush released more than 500 detainees from Guantanamo compared with the 147 he’s negotiated to have transferred to other countries.
And Obama’s aides said a greater share of those transferred under Bush have rejoined the terror battle than have detainees sent abroad by Obama.
During a background call with reporters, a senior Pentagon official said 10 percent or fewer of the Obama transferees have fought with enemy forces, less than half the 20-plus percent “re-engagement rate” the official cited for the Bush-era detainees dispatched abroad.
The U.S. government spent $445 million to run the Guantanamo prison last year, due in part to the cost of supporting 2,000 military personnel based there.
Obama’s plan refers to 13 potential prison sites in the United States but doesn’t name any of them. Pentagon officials previously had visited Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, the U.S. Naval Consolidated Brig in Charleston, South Carolina, four sites in Colorado and a second prison in Kansas.
Virtually all Republican members of Congress, along with the party’s current presidential candidates, have opposed moving the Guantanamo detainees to the United States.
Speaking on the Senate floor before Obama’s comments, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky criticized what he called the president’s “ill-considered crusade.”
Rep. Mark Meadows, a North Carolina Republican and leader of the tea party-linked Freedom Caucus, also denounced the proposal.
“We need to make sure we can keep Americans safe,” Meadows told CNN. “This plan won’t do that.”
Even among Democrats, Obama’s initiative had few immediate proponents.
One of them, Sen. Diane Feinstein of California, compiled the damning torture report that caused a big stir when she released it 14 months ago as senior Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, a post she still holds.
“This prison is a waste of taxpayer dollars – more than $5 billion to date – and stands in contrast to our values as a nation,” Feinstein said. “It’s time we close Guantanamo once and for all.”
Rep. Adam Schiff of California, senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee said of Obama’s plan: “It will make us safer, it will save us money, and it is the right thing to do.”
Obama, too, appealed to Americans’ pocketbooks, saying his proposal, if implemented, would cost less over time than keeping the detainees at Guantanamo.
However, the president, some of his senior aides and the plan itself provided conflicting figures.
Obama said his plan would save American taxpayers more than $300 million in the first 10 years after implementation and as much as $1.7 billion over two decades.
Administration officials, who spoke with reporters on background before Obama’s address, said holding the alleged terrorists at a maximum-security mainland prison would cost up to $85 million less annually, a figure that would generate much bigger savings than Obama foresaw.
The plan itself cites savings of $140 to $180 million a year, which would produce still greater savings.
Whatever the true costs, Obama aides said shuttering Guantanamo would help restore the United States’ standing in the world.
“The reason the president is doing this is Guantanamo is a negative symbol for our national security,” one official said. “It hurts us with our allies and inspires jihadists. It’s time to bring this chapter of American history to a close.”
Among the 91 detainees currently at the prison on a U.S. base in Cuba, 35 are eligible for transfer, 10 are involved in various phases of military commission hearings and 46 are undergoing review to determine whether they can be transferred, the officials said Tuesday.
The first alleged terrorists were brought to the Guantanamo detention center in January 2002, exactly four months after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in New York and Washington that killed almost 3,000 people.
A total of 779 detainees have been held at Guantanamo for varying amounts of time. President George W. Bush released 532 to other countries, while Obama said he has sent 147 abroad.
Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and the four other accused 9/11 plotters have been engaged in pre-trial hearings for a decade before a military commission judge at Guantanamo, with their actual trial still years from starting because of hundreds of motions filed by their attorneys.
Two of them were at the war court Tuesday for pretrial hearings on defense attorneys’ access to evidence from the CIA “black” sites where they were held for three to four years.
Carol Rosenberg of the Miami Herald contributed