President Obama’s appeal to lawmakers to close Guantanamo prison camp is already drawing ridicule in Congress, where Republican leaders quickly slammed him for releasing what they see as an incomplete proposal.
Republican congressional leaders, along with the senior House and Senate Armed Services Republicans, swiftly decried the administration’s plan — which was submitted to Congress on Tuesday — as shoddy on the details and a poor proffer to get a serious conversation going about closing the controversial detention facility.
“His proposal fails to provide critical details required by law,” House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said in a statement Tuesday morning. “We will not jeopardize our national security over a campaign promise.”
Last year, Congress required the administration to furnish details about the “specific facility” where it planned to send detainees as a key part of the plan delivered to Congress by Tuesday’s deadline. Republicans leaped on the omission.
“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,” said House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Tex.), calling the Pentagon’s nine-page proposal “more press release than a plan.”
The Obama plan does not specify a preferred destination for the remaining detainees, or give anything more than what senior administration officials on Tuesday called a “prototype” for what a United States detention facility should look like.
The lack of detail is making enemies of Obama’s plans from people who were once friends.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) was supportive of the idea of closing the Cuba-based detention camp, but only if such a plan is first vetted by Congress. McCain was key to brokering the provision of the National Defense Authorization Act requiring the administration to submit a plan to close Guantanamo to Congress, which was seen as the critical opening step to starting a formal debate.
On Tuesday, McCain said Obama’s plan had missed the mark.
“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,” he said. “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.”
Since before he even took office, President Obama has been trying to sell Congress on the idea of shuttering the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay that has been used to hold suspected terrorists since 2002. Bit by bit, the Obama administration has been transferring the facility’s remaining detainees to other countries and working to prove that closing Guantanamo would save taxpayers money.
There are currently 91 detainees left at Guantanamo Bay, 35 of whom are eligible for transfer to other countries. The Pentagon’s plan estimates annual savings of about $65 million to $85 million from moving the 30 to 60 detainees who would remain to a facility in the United States. The plan further estimates that the government could recoup the one-time costs of transferring those detainees – about $290 million to $475 million – in three to five years.
But naming a specific location or locations to which remaining detainees could be transferred is a politically treacherous undertaking. Only some of the facilities the administration has scouted are public, sparking fierce denunciations from lawmakers whose states and districts would host them.
One such site is in Colorado, where administration officials looked into converting a high-security prison into an alternative to Guantanamo’s detention unit. The local pushback meant that even one of Obama’s closest allies in Congress had nothing warm to say on Tuesday about the closure plan.
“I’ve repeatedly said I do not support the transfer of prisoners from the Guantanamo Bay military facility to Colorado,” said Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), who is up for reelection this year. “I’ve voted to close the prison, but I believe military detainees should be held in military prisons. Colorado does not have that type of facility. This plan has done nothing to change my mind.”
The same blowback arose from the largely Republican delegations representing states such as Kansas and South Carolina, where administration officials have also considered housing detainees.
Indeed, Obama has struggled over the last several years to find any Republican allies in his quest to close the detention facility. Instead, lawmakers — suspicious that the president might try an end-run around Congress to force closure — have taken precautions by passing legislation forbidding the administration from using any Pentagon money to transfer detainees to the United States, or start building a new facility to house them.
The search for such Republicans has only become harder as leading GOP presidential candidates have doubled down on their promises to keep Guantanamo open — and replenish it with more prisoners if a Republican reaches the White House.
“When I’m president, if we capture a terrorist alive, they’re not getting a court hearing in Manhattan, they’re not going to be sent to Nevada, they’re going to Guantanamo,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said in Las Vegas on Tuesday.
“Don’t shut down Gitmo – expand it, and let’s have some new terrorists there,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), said at a rally in South Fernley, Nev.
Military officials have said recently they have no plans to cross Congress on its prohibition against using Pentagon funds to move detainees to the United States.
But such assurances have not made lawmakers opposed to shuttering Guantanamo any more amenable to working with the president, now that he has submitted a plan. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) suggested Tuesday that he was particularly unwilling to bend on the point of bringing suspected terrorists into the United States.
“The bipartisan will of congress has already been expressed against that proposal,” he said on the Senate floor.