Declaring that he doesn’t “want to pass this problem on to the next president,” President Obama and the Defense Department officially submitted their plan to close the detention center at Guantanamo Bay.
Flanked by Vice President Biden and Defense Secretary Ashton Carter in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Obama acknowledged that the law as passed by Congress blocks the transfer of detainees to the United States.
But he believes that that an appropriate lobbying effort will overcome that hurdle — including convincing Americans that they’ll be less safe if Gitmo stays open.
“When it becomes clear that something is not working as intended, when it does not advance our security, we have to change course,” Obama said, stressing that the facility “undermines” U.S. security.
“This is not just my opinion, this is the opinion of experts…. [terrorists] use it as propaganda in their efforts to recruit.”
The president also maintained that “keeping this facility open is contrary to our values” as “we pride ourselves as being a beacon to other nations, a model of the rule of law.”
Putting the wheels in motion to try to close Guantanamo, Obama noted, was one of his first actions as president “but unfortunately during that period what had previously been bipartisan support suddenly became a partisan issue.”
“The public was scared into thinking somehow if we close it we’ll be less safe,” he said.
More than 85 percent of detainees originally housed at Guantanamo have been transferred to other countries, with 147 of those transferred under Obama’s administration with “new, significant restrictions to keep them from returning to the battlefield.” Transfer locations have included Sudan, which is run by a president indicted for war crimes and crimes against humanity for the Darfur genocide.
Ninety-one detainees remain at Gitmo today. The administration’s plan includes steps to to “securely and responsibly” transfer to other countries 35 detainees who have already been approved for transfer. Detainees not currently classified as such would get fresh threat assessments.
Obama also wants to shift away from the “very costly” military commissions and use a new process to try detainees. “Article III federal courts have an outstanding record when done right,” he said. “We can try them and put them in our maximum-security prisons and it works just fine.”
“This is about closing a chapter in our history,” he added, and integrating “lessons we’ve learned since 9/11.”
Obama said “this type of use of military commission should not set a precedent for the future,” and should only be used when terrorists are “detained during battle” while those detained “outside military theaters” must be tried in “our strong, proven federal courts.”
The president said his administration is “going to work with Congress to find a place in the United States” for detainees deemed to pose a “continuing significant threat.”
“We are not identifying a specific facility today in this plan; we are outlining what options look like,” Obama said, acknowledging that with the law against transfers to home soil “we recognize that this is going to be a challenge.” He indicated the administration will pitch the savings side of the plan to Congress, with an estimated savings of $300 million over 10 years.
And he tried to win over public opinion on closing Gitmo, which he acknowledged was not in his favor. A YouGov/Huffington Post survey last summer found just 27 percent favoring closure.
“In their mind the notion of having terrorists held in the United States instead of some distant place can be scary,” Obama said, noting “we’re already holding terrorists …we threw the book at them and there have been no incidents.”
Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) noted that a site in his home state under consideration for transfers “is within five miles of a dozen schools, multiple neighborhoods.”
“The law could not be any clearer: President Obama does not have the authority to move dozens of dangerous terrorists from the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay to American communities. Instead of trying to empty out Gitmo and moving dozens of dangerous terrorists to South Carolina, Kansas or Colorado, the president needs to put our national security interests first,” Scott said in a statement after Obama, who did not take questions from reporters, finished his address. “It is beyond time he abandon this reckless campaign promise, as even his own Defense secretary and attorney general, along with military leaders, have concluded his course of action is illegal.”
“The fiscal argument the White House is trying to make is a shallow one, and pretending like moving Guantanamo to a new location is going to take away a propaganda point for groups like ISIS is simply disingenuous,” Scott added. “There is simply no reason to put a target on an American community, when we already have an isolated facility, well-guarded by Marines that is more than capable of holding them.”
Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), whose state is also under consideration for transfers, called Obama’s plan a “futile proposal” as the president signed the law blocking transfers to the U.S. just three months ago.
“Today’s proposal only signals that the President may be willing to once again circumvent Congress and ignore the very law he approved in order to fulfill his campaign promises,” Gardner said. “This represents a grave threat to Colorado and our national security and I will take any and all action as a United States Senator to ensure Guantanamo Bay detainees remain in Cuba and out of Colorado.”
And new legislation came down the pipeline quicker than the plan was delivered by the administration.
Late Monday, Sens. Richard Burr (R-NC), Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) introduced the Naval Station Guantanamo Bay Protection Act, which would require the president to notify Congress if he tries to modify, terminate, abandon or transfer the lease of the land on which Gitmo rests. He would be prohibited from making those changes without congressional approval.
“The Castro regime is already ripping the American people off and now it’s demanding the return of a U.S. naval station, which has been vital to our Navy and Coast Guard operations in the Caribbean for over a century,” Rubio said. “Our military and intelligence services are trying to confront growing threats to our homeland, and we 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.”
In the House, Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) called Obama’s proposal “more press release than a plan.”
“It is no substitute for the legally required detainee plan the president must submit to Congress. That plan is now overdue,” Thornberry said. “Among the information missing is the proposed location for a new detention facility. More than seven years after he first ordered the detention center at GTMO closed, I find it telling that the White House has either failed to work out these important details or they know, but refuse to disclose them, to the American public.”
“It suggests to me that the president is more interested in fulfilling a campaign promise at any cost, than in transparently addressing the risk associated with bringing terrorists to the United States. And this should be worrisome — after all, this is the president who has consistently underestimated the threat Islamic extremists pose to America.”