President Obama’s plan to shutter the military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, ran into a buzz saw of opposition on Tuesday, underscoring how difficult it will be for him to fulfill a major campaign promise in his final year in office.
Mere minutes after the president sent Congress his blueprint to empty the controversial facility and move detainees to the United States, Republican leaders declared it dead on arrival.
Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) best summed up the attitudes of his colleagues: He crumpled up the proposal and tossed it in the trash.
“This is what I think of the president’s plan to send terrorists to the United States,” he said in a video posted on Twitter.
Obama’s plan also received a lukewarm reception from Democrats facing reelection in November.
Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), who is running in a tough race, said he supports closing the prison but cautioned that detainees should be moved to military facilities and not civilian prisons in his home state.
Liberal Democrats came out strongly in favor of the plan, but centrists refrained from taking a stance.
“I do think closing Guantánamo would deprive jihadists of a successful recruiting tool,” said Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “But there are serious legal barriers and legitimate security concerns to be dealt with. … In general, I support the closure of Guantánamo, but the details matter.”
Coons said he would decide whether to support the plan once he reviews it.
The resistance to his plan has surely left Obama exasperated.
The president made a pledge to close the Guantánamo Bay prison on his first day in office. But barring a miraculous turn of events, the facility will remain open when he leaves the White House next January.
Announcing the plan from the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Obama voiced frustration at how partisan politics has consumed what was once a bipartisan national security goal.
He pointed out that former President George W. Bush and his own 2008 opponent, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), supported closing down the prison.
Obama prodded lawmakers to give the proposal a “fair hearing” even in an election year, when concerns about terrorism are front and center in voters’ minds.
He argued the facility serves as a powerful recruiting tool for extremist groups such as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), is too costly for the government to maintain and hurts relationships with U.S. allies.
But even Obama appeared to recognize that the chances of success are slim, acknowledging, “The politics of this are tough.”
“I don’t want to pass this problem on to the next president, whoever it is,” he said. “And, if as a nation, we don’t deal with this now, when will we deal with it?”
Given the widespread resistance to Obama’s plan, there has been speculation that the president could use executive actions to close down the prison.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest declined to say Tuesday whether Obama would act on his own.
“Our focus is going to be on working with Congress,” Earnest said. “And working with Congress requires presenting them a specific plan on the timeframe that they asked for. That’s exactly what we’ve done. And we’re now asking for Congress to give it fair consideration. And I’m not going to speculate at this point if Congress refuses to do that.”
Unilateral action would spark a major partisan battle and potentially open up the Obama administration to litigation.
Congress has passed defense policy bills over the last several years that ban the transfer of detainees to the U.S. mainland. Obama has signed the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) each year, but last November, he included a statement blasting those restrictions.
The Gitmo prison currently houses 91 detainees. Under Obama’s proposal, the administration would transfer 35 who are deemed to pose a lower security risk back to their home countries or third countries over the next few months.
Another 10 are being tried by military commissions. Many of the remaining 46 detainees would be kept in a new facility on U.S. soil, designed to hold between 30 and 60 prisoners.
The cost of building a new prison would range from $290 million to $475 million, but the plan touts $65 million to $85 million in savings on operating costs compared to Guantánamo.
Republican lawmakers have long been dead set against changing the law to move detainees to the U.S. mainland, and they raised new objections to Obama’s latest plan.
Pentagon officials looked at 13 potential facilities, including military prisons in Kansas and South Carolina and a federal prison in Colorado. But the plan does not identify a specific replacement site.
“I have pledged to give the president’s plan a fair hearing, but he makes it impossible to do so when he withholds critical details,” said Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.
Earnest initially blamed Congress for the lack of explicit alternative, pointing to language in the NDAA that bans federal dollars from being used to “construct or modify” U.S. facilities for Guantánamo detainees.
But another section of the bill calls on the administration to submit a “specific facility or facilities” to house detainees in its proposal.
When asked about the discrepancy, the spokesman said it highlighted “yet another example of congressional dysfunction — that they have written a law that includes varying guidance.”
Republicans also seized on the arrest Tuesday of a former Guantánamo Bay detainee as part of a Spanish terrorism investigation.
They argued the incident showed flaws in the administration’s strategy of transferring prisoners overseas. But Earnest called the incident the exception and not the rule, saying the recidivism rate for former detainees is in the “single digits.”
The proposal also made waves on the 2016 campaign trail. Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders both support shuttering the facility, but the Vermont senator used the announcement as an opportunity to say he favored closing it before the former secretary of State.
“As I have said for years, the prison at Guantanamo must be closed as quickly as possible,” Sanders said in a statement. “Others, including my opponent, have not always agreed with me.”
Republican candidates blasted the plan. Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas), both Cuban-Americans, even raised the possibility that Obama could turn over the entire Guantánamo Bay naval base to Cuba as part of his detente with the Castro government. The White House has previously ruled out such a move.
Despite the wall of opposition facing the plan, Obama pledged he would not shirk from the fight with his rivals.
“I’m absolutely committed to closing the detention facility at Guantánamo,” he said. “I’m going to continue to make the case for doing so as long as I hold this office.”
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