Carlos Barria / Reuters

Obama announces long-awaited Guantánamo closing plan

Proposal to Congress makes a financial argument for closing the controversial detention center

Barack Obama's administration on Tuesday released its long-awaited plan to close the U.S. detention center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and transfer the remaining detainees to a facility in the United States. But the proposal ducks the question where of that facility would be and whether he can complete the unlikely closure before he leaves office.

The plan, which was delivered to Congress, makes a financial argument for closing the controversial detention center. U.S. officials say it calls for up to $475 million in construction costs that would ultimately be offset by as much as $180 million per year in operating cost savings.

But Obama's case is largely a moral one. "Keeping this facility open is contrary to our values. It undermines our standing in the world," he said at a news conference on Tuesday morning. 

The proposal is part of Obama's last effort to make good on his unfulfilled 2008 campaign vow to close Guantánamo and persuade lawmakers to allow the Defense Department to move nearly 60 detainees to the U.S. But with few specifics, the proposal may only further antagonize lawmakers who have repeatedly passed legislation barring any effort to move detainees to the U.S.

Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, the chairman of House Armed Services Committee, has said his panel would hold a hearing on a closure plan. But he sent a letter to Obama warning that Congress has made clear what details must be included in any plan and that anything less would be unacceptable.

U.S. officials say the plan considers but does not name 13 locations in the U.S., including seven existing prison facilities in Colorado, South Carolina and Kansas as well as six other locations on current military bases. They say the plan doesn't recommend a preferred site and the cost estimates are meant to provide a starting point for a conversation with Congress.

Among the facilities reviewed by a Pentagon assessment team last year were the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks and Midwest Joint Regional Corrections Facility at Leavenworth, Kansas; the Consolidated Naval Brig in Charleston, South Carolina; the Federal Correctional Complex, which includes the medium, maximum and supermax facilities in Florence, Colorado; and the Colorado State Penitentiary II in Canon City, Colorado, also known as the Centennial Correctional Facility.

According to the officials, the U.S. facility would cost $265 million to $305 million to operate each year. The annual operating cost for Guantánamo is $445 million; the officials said Gitmo will need about $225 million in repairs and construction costs if it continues to be used.

They said it will cost $290 million to $475 million for construction at the U.S. site, depending on the location. Some of the more expensive sites are on the military bases, which would need more construction. Because of the annual operating savings, the officials said, the U.S. would make up the initial construction costs in three to five years.

More detailed spending figures, which are considered classified, will be provided to Congress, said the officials. Late last year other U.S. officials said that the assessments done by the Pentagon team suggested that the Centennial Correctional Facility in Colorado is a more suitable site to send detainees whom officials believe should never be released. None of those officials were authorized to discuss the matter publicly, and they spoke on condition of anonymity.

Members of Congress have been demanding the Guantánamo plan for months, and those representing South Carolina, Kansas and Colorado have voiced opposition to housing the detainees in their states.

"I remain committed to blocking the transfer of Guantánamo detainees anywhere in the United States, especially Fort Leavenworth," Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., said in a statement Tuesday. "We must safeguard the missions on Fort Leavenworth, the nearly 14,000 military and civilian personnel and their family members and the thousands of Kansans who live in the Leavenworth community."

The administration is prohibited by law from moving Guantánamo detainees to the United States. Obama has long opposed that prohibition, and the White House has not ruled out the possibility that the president may attempt to close the prison through executive action. The plan submitted Tuesday does not address that option, officials said.

Advocates of closing Guantánamo say the prison has long been a recruiting tool for armed groups and that holding people indefinitely without charge or trial has caused anger and dismay among U.S. allies.

Opponents, however, say changing the detention center's location won't eliminate that problem.

On that point, Obama's proposal faced criticism even from those who endorse closing Guantánamo. His initial campaign pledge was widely viewed as a promise to end the practice of detaining prisoners indefinitely without charge, not to bring those detainees to the U.S., said Naureen Shah, the director of Amnesty International USA's security and human rights program.

"Whatever the president proposes, even if it doesn't come to fruition, the administration is changing the goalposts on this issue," she said.

There are currently 91 detainees at Guantánamo Bay. Of those, 35 are expected to be transferred out by this summer.

The rest either are facing trial by military commission or have been determined to be too dangerous to release but are not facing charges. Some can't be charged because of insufficient evidence, and some may face future prosecution or have been designated for indefinite detention under the international laws of war.

Seven detainees are in the early stages of trial by military commission, including five men accused of planning and aiding in the Sept. 11 attacks, and three have been convicted and are serving sentences.

At its peak in 2003, Guantánamo held nearly 680 detainees, and there were about 245 when Obama took office.

Al Jazeera and The Associated Press 

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