On the eve of stepping down, President Barack Obama notified Congress Thursday that he had downsized the detention center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, to the last 41 detainees — and blamed “politics” for thwarting his efforts to empty the prison entirely.
“History will cast a harsh judgment on this aspect of our fight against terrorism and those of us who fail to bring it to a responsible end,” he wrote in a two-page letter to Congress released by the White House.
The Department of Defense had no immediate comment on where four captives released overnight Wednesday went, or their identities.
“By any measure, the costs of keeping it open far exceed the complications involved in closing it,” Obama said. “There is simply no justification beyond politics for the Congress’ insistence on keeping the facility open. Members of Congress who obstruct efforts to close the facility, given the stakes involved for our security, have abdicated their responsibility to the American people.”
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Obama had argued for years that the prison was a costly recruiting tool for al-Qaida and its offspring. Based on a $445 million 2015 budget, it now costs $10.85 million to house a captive for a year.
President-elect Donald Trump campaigned on a promise to keep it open, “load it up with some bad dudes,” and remarked during the campaign that he would reduce operating costs considerably.
The Bush administration opened the detention center at the U.S. Navy base on Jan. 11, 2002, across the years brought in nearly 800 detainees, and had repatriated or resettled more than 500 of them by the time Obama took office. “We have transferred 196 detainees from Guantánamo with arrangements designed to keep them from engaging in acts that pose a threat to the United States and our allies,” Obama wrote Thursday. “Of the nearly 800 detainees at one time held at the facility, today only 41 remain.”
Obama used his letter to make one more argument for closure.
“For 15 years, the United States has detained hundreds of people at the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay, a facility that never should have been opened in the first place,” he wrote. “Terrorists use it for propaganda, its operations drain our military resources during a time of budget cuts, and it harms our partnerships with allies and countries whose cooperation we need against today’s evolving terrorist threat.”