President Barack Obama on Tuesday sent Congress his proposal for shuttering the U.S. military prison for alleged terrorists at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and aides expressed confidence that Republican lawmakers will be willing to negotiate with the administration.
The nine-page plan, which was required to be submitted by Tuesday by previous congressional legislation, would transfer 30 to 60 detainees currently at Guantánamo to an unidentified high-security prison in the United States at an estimated cost of $290 million to $475 million. The plan also includes a nine-page appendix.
“With this plan, we have the opportunity finally to eliminate a terrorist propaganda tool, to strengthen relationships with allies and partners, enhance our national security, and most importantly uphold the values that bind us as Americans,” Obama said in a short address minutes after the plan was released.
Obama said his plan would save American taxpayers more than $300 million in the first 10 years after implementation and as much as $1.7 billion over two decades.
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In a briefing before Obama’s remarks, officials disclosed a new total annual cost for current Guantánamo prison and war court operations: $455 million a year — or $4.9 million per detainee for each of the 91 currently held at the U.S. Navy base in Cuba.
The report itself forecasts $140 million to $180 million in annual savings.
Obama acknowledged that the closure plan, which he campaigned on in 2008 and vowed to do in an executive order in January 2009 two days after taking office, would face stiff opposition in the Republican-controlled Congress, but he asked lawmakers to consider it.
“Given the stakes involved for our national security, this plan deserves a fair hearing even in an election year,” Obama said.
Virtually all Republican members of Congress, along with the party’s current presidential candidates, have opposed moving the Guantánamo detainees to the United States.
Even before Obama addressed reporters and the nation from the White House, one GOP presidential candidate, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, said he and other senators would introduce a bill to block the plan.
Speaking on the Senate floor before Obama’s comments, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky criticized what he called the president’s “ill-considered crusade.”
Rep. Mark Meadows, a North Carolina Republican and leader of the tea party-linked Freedom Caucus, also denounced the proposal.
“We need to make sure we can keep Americans safe,” Meadows told CNN. “This plan won’t do that.”
Senior administration officials who spoke with reporters on background before Obama’s address said that cost, which would be to move the detainees and to build a new prison or fortify an existing one, would be recouped within five years because the cost of holding them in the United States would be up to $85 million less annually than the $445 million the government spent last year at Guantánamo.
“The reason the president is doing this is Guantánamo is a negative symbol for our national security,” one official said. “It hurts us with our allies and inspires jihadists. It’s time to bring this chapter of American history to a close.”
Among 91 detainees currently at the prison, 35 are eligible for transfer, 10 are involved in various phases of military commission hearings and 46 are awaiting parole-board-style reviews to determine whether they can be transferred or are considered “forever prisoners,” long-held captives a national-security review board considers ineligible for trial but too dangerous to release.
The first alleged terrorists were brought to the Guantánamo detention January 11, 2002, exactly four months after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in New York and Washington that killed almost 3,000 people.
A total of 779 detainees have been held at Guantánamo for varying amounts of time. President George W. Bush released 532 to other countries, while Obama said he has sent 147 abroad.
Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, and four of his accused plotters have been engaged in pre-trial hearings before a military commission at Guantánamo, with their actual trial still years from starting because of hundreds of motions filed by their attorneys.
Two of them were at the war court Tuesday for pretrial hearings on defense attorneys’ access to evidence from the CIA “black sites” where they were held for three to four years.
Miami Herald reporter Carol Rosenberg contributed to this report from Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.