President Barack Obama late Wednesday signed a $633 billion defense bill that continues to block his ability to close the prison camps at Guantánamo, then in a separate signing statement called the prison camps a waste of national security resources.
“I continue to believe that operating the facility weakens our national security by wasting resources, damaging our relationships with key allies, and strengthening our enemies,” Obama said in a statement released by the White House Thursday morning.
While the president has bristled at the restrictions in past signing statements, this time he highlighted the expense, and it comes immediately after the hot debate over the fiscal cliff.
The White House had threatened to veto the Pentagon’s spending bill because of a number of concerns, including limits on his authority to transfer terror suspects from the U.S. military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. As of Wednesday, the Pentagon held 166 detainees at Guantánamo — at least 55 of whom are cleared for release — but just nine of them on trial or convicted of crimes.
Obama, on vacation in Honolulu, said he signed the bill because of “the need to renew critical defense authorities and funding was too great to ignore.”
The 2013 National Defense Authorization Act funds the Pentagon’s operating budget, gives troops a 1.7 percent pay raise, authorizes nearly $480 million for U.S.-Israeli missile defense cooperation, and adds up to 1,000 Marines to embassy security detachments around the world. It also authorizes many additional expenditures and forbids others, effectively using the power of the purse to impose policy.
The Obama administration had lobbied Congress to remove the Guantánamo restrictions, at one point threatening a veto, and at another noting the inflated costs of doing business at the remote base.
In a Dec. 11 letter to Congress, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta argued for relief from the restrictions by highlighting the financial costs of the prison camps where 1,700 troops and civilians serve on temporary or contract duties — in a setting where the Pentagon imports everything from food to fuel for electricity to entertainment for both captives and captors.
“These sections would preclude moving even convicted war criminals serving life sentences to secure facilities in the United States that would also be economically efficient,” Panetta wrote the House Armed Services Committee Chairman, Rep. Buck McKeon, in a letter obtained by The Wall Street Journal.
The Obama administration has estimated the costs of keeping a captive at Guantánamo as topping $800,000 per prisoner per year. A Government Accountability Office study on the possibility of relocating Guantanamo captives to U.S. soil estimated the cost of one year’s federal confinement in a maximum security lockup at $34,627.55 a year. It did not predict costs if the military were responsible for Guantánamo captives moved to U.S. facilities.
When asked to comment, Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio did not respond directly to the issue of the economics of the prison camps. But he said the United States is at war with “non-state actors and terrorists” from “an irreconcilable segment of Islamic extremists who operate on a global scale.”
Rubio said Guantánamo’s prison and courthouse “should remain operational until we are no longer engaged in hostilities against this particular enemy.” He toured the facilities in May.