Republican Sen. John McCain said Thursday that he supports closing the prison at Guantánamo by housing detainees at a Defense Department facility in the United States but that President Barack Obama has to first present a “comprehensive plan” for Congressional approval.
“If that plan is approved” by both the Senate and the House, McCain said, “the Congress would provide the president the authority to proceed with the closure of the facility.”
McCain, who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, did not identify a U.S. site. He said only that they would go to “a suitable place in the United States”
He was addressing reporters after the committee voted 22-4 to adopt a draft $613 billion 2016 National Defense Authorization Act which, like a House version, imposes restrictions on transfers of the last 122 captives in part to protest Obama’s May 31 swap of five Taliban prisoners for the release of POW Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl from Afghanistan.
The White House invoked commander-in-chief authority and didn’t notify Congress 30 days before the Taliban prisoners were released from Guantánamo. A Government Accountability Office report concluded that Obama violated his statutory obligation to provide the notice and McCain Thursday called it “rather irritating to those of us who believe in the Constitution of the United States and obeying the law.”
As a 2008 presidential candidate McCain, like Obama, campaigned on a pledge to close Guantánamo. McCain said he had asked the Obama White House for a closure plan in 2009 but never got one.
He said Thursday that he continued to support closure because of “the image that Guantánamo has in the world, whether it’s deserved or not deserved” as well as a $3.5 million a year per prisoner price tag. By comparison, he said, it costs “around $70,000 a year” to hold a maximum-security prisoner in the United States.
Key to moving them to U.S. soil, he said, would be ensuring that war-on-terror detainees would not be “subject to all of the civil kinds of American-style justice, provisions of justice.”
The Arizona Republican did not immediately release the draft legislation but a summary by the committee showed it was not identical to proposed House Armed Services Committee restrictions on Guantánamo transfers.
For example, unlike the House version, the Senate’s would allow the prison to temporarily send a Guantánamo prisoner to a Pentagon medical facility in the United States under certain circumstances.
“We have to go to the floor obviously, and to conference,” he said, calling the Senate version of Guantánamo closure restrictions “a very workable proposal.”
Separately, the senior Democrat on the committee, Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, described the plan that Congress would vote on as “a report from the president about the process of reducing the population at Guantánamo.”
Reed said the provision resulted from a “bipartisan consensus that the facility should be closed, and the question is how do you do it. We hope we provided a pathway to do it.”
In putting per-prisoner costs at $3.5 million a year, the former Vietnam War Navy pilot and POW adopted a formula that openly differed with the commander of the U.S. Southern Command, Marine Gen. John F. Kelly, who last year testified at Congress that he crunches per-prisoner costs at more like $750,000 a detainee. A spokesman said the same day the general with oversight of the prison camps in Cuba misspoke and meant to say around $840,000 a year for each detainee.
Follow @CarolRosenberg on Twitter