Guantánamo

White House argues ‘Guantánamo North’ can be cheaper than prison in Cuba

A member of the Secret Service Uniform Division walks though a display outside the East Colonnade of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2015, of 56 ‘snow people’ that represent the number of states and territories in the U.S. during a preview of the 2015 White House holiday decor.
A member of the Secret Service Uniform Division walks though a display outside the East Colonnade of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2015, of 56 ‘snow people’ that represent the number of states and territories in the U.S. during a preview of the 2015 White House holiday decor. ASSOCIATED PRESS

The White House insisted Wednesday that it could save money and safeguard security by moving Guantánamo detainees to the United States after the Wall Street Journal reported that internal deliberations had put the price-tag at a whopping $400 million for the move and hundreds of millions more in operating costs.

The Obama administration’s goal is to reduce the present 107-detainee population by more than 50 men. That means, if the Wall Street Journal estimate of “something less than $300 million” a year in operating costs is sound, the per prisoner cost of stateside detention could top $4 million a prisoner compared to about $3.4 million per prisoner at Guantánamo today.

But administration officials were unwilling to confirm it, saying their blueprint on how to close the detention center was not done, and there had been no meaningful cost analysis.

The Obama administration was crafting “a strategy that saves money and that makes us safer,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters.

“Detaining in the United States those individuals that cannot be safely transferred or effectively prosecuted would be far cheaper, and would be a much better use of taxpayer dollars,” he added, “considering that it would also take away a recruiting tool that is used by terrorists.”

17captive release files await Defense Secretary Ash Carter’s signature

None, however, can leave the remote Navy base in Cuba before the New Year.

U.S. diplomats have negotiated release arrangements for 17 captives to other countries and forwarded the deals to the Pentagon for the approval of Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, according to an administration official with knowledge of the process. Carter has signed off on none of them, however, and no 30-day pre-transfer notices have been forwarded to Congress.

Earnest said as many as 50 detainees could leave the base that way.

“What the State Department has done is taken these case files and begun entering into negotiations with countries around the world to get them to agree to take in these individuals based on the security precautions that we believe are necessary,” he said. “And so that’s the way that the process works. And that is certainly what we’ll be pursuing to reduce the prison population.”

The truth is that many of the remaining individuals are people who deserved to be imprisoned.

Barack Obama, in French TV interview

A Defense official said Wednesday it is hard to pinpoint precise costs for a proposed “Guantánamo North” because Congress has forbidden spending money on transferring detainees, and that embargo includes planning for a transfer to U.S. shores. The official added that the figures cited by the Wall Street Journal were the upper end of the estimated relocation costs as of this week.

Opponents of closing Guantánamo immediately leaped on the Wall Street Journal estimate to lambaste a key administration talking point on the waste of taxpayer dollars at the offshore prison.

House speaker Paul Ryan issued an alert on the report under the title, “Major White House talking point on Guantánamo falls flat.” Rep. Mac Thornberry, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, issued a statement: “No one really believes that bringing terrorists to our shores would make Americans any safer. Now we know that the President’s claims of saving us money aren’t true, either.”

No one really believes that bringing terrorists to our shores would make Americans any safer. Now we know that the President’s claims of saving us money aren’t true either.

GOP Rep. Mac Thornberry, chairman House Armed Services Committee

The report comes at a time when President Barack Obama is ratcheting up his rhetorical determination to close the detention center, telling a French television news reporter aboard Air Force One on his return from Paris on Tuesday that the Guantánamo prison “continues to serve as a recruitment tool for jihadists, and it is something that we need to stop.

“It is contrary to who we are, and I will make this argument until my very last day as president,” he vowed.

Obama acknowledged that while some captives could be released, others were too dangerous to let go and might not ever face trial.

“The truth is that many of the remaining individuals are people who deserved to be imprisoned,” he said. “In the aftermath of 9/11, in a war atmosphere and where there was great fear, there wasn’t the care that was needed I think in gathering evidence.

“Sometimes it was impossible; sometimes it was carelessness. The fact that some were interrogated in ways that were contrary to our values and tortured — all those things now make it difficult to take them to court and to hold them in a legal proceeding that meets our normal standards.

Closing it, however, would require releasing or transferring two detainees a week before the president leaves office and, under the recent Defense policy bill Obama signed on the eve of Thanksgiving, that just got more difficult. It renewed the law that prohibits moving Guantánamo detainees to the United States, and created new reporting requirements, effectively canceling out two captives’ 30-day departure notices Carter sent to Congress earlier this year.

Interestingly, the report quoted an unnamed “senior Defense official” as saying some in the administration had revived an old plan of abandoning the war court President George W. Bush built and Obama reformed in favor of putting war-on-terror detainees on trial in the civilian, federal system.

“Doing so would remove the cost of building a military judicial facility at the new prison,” the report said. The war court, run by the Office of Military Commissions, has cost well over $700 million so far and is still in the pretrial phase of the Sept. 11 and USS Cole death-penalty cases of six former CIA captives.

Earnest didn’t dismiss the concept out of hand, saying both federal and military courts have been considered as options. “And I don’t have a policy change to announce at this point about whether or not one of those options is taken off the table.”

The Pentagon is mounting a trip to the remote base Saturday to resume a 9/11 case pretrial hearing that left off on Oct. 30 with testimony about an Army judge’s controversial restraining order that forbids female troops from touching the alleged terrorists in transfer between their secret prison and court or legal meetings.

Carol Rosenberg: 305-376-3179, @carolrosenberg

Read the partially censored transcript of the public Oct. 30, 2015 war court hearing, here.

Read about why this is the most expensive prison on earth, from our 2011 report, here.

Some in the Obama administration have discussed building ‘Guantánamo North’ from scratch. Our report, here.

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