President Obama is renewing his stalled effort to close the military detention center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. It was a promise he made when he first ran for president, but one he couldn’t keep when Congress began blocking funds for releasing or transferring hundreds of prisoners captured as part of the war on terror.
In a speech at the National Defense University in Washington Thursday, Mr. Obama said “Gitmo,” as it’s known, “has become a symbol around the world for an America that flouts the rule of law.”
In addition to asking Congress to lift the restrictions on detainee transfers, the president listed several other steps he intends to take.
“I have asked the Department of Defense to designate a site in the United States where we can hold military commissions,” he said. “I am appointing a new, senior envoy at the State Department and Defense Department whose sole responsibility will be to achieve the transfer of detainees to third countries.
"I am lifting the moratorium on detainee transfers to Yemen, so we can review them on a case-by-case basis," Obama continued. "To the greatest extent possible, we will transfer detainees who have been cleared to go to other countries. Where appropriate, we will bring terrorists to justice in our courts and military justice system. And we will insist that judicial review be available for every detainee.”
To buttress his argument for closing Gitmo, Obama noted that former President Bush had transferred some 530 detainees with Congress’s support and also pointed out that Sen. John McCain (R) had agreed with Obama’s position when the two ran against each other in 2008.
There were about 245 prisoners at Guantánamo when Obama took office in 2009, and that has dropped to 166. But releases have slowed to a trickle under the congressional restrictions, including a ban on any of them being brought to the US. No prisoners have left Guantánamo this year.
Among the 166 current inmates, nine have been charged with crimes or convicted, 24 are considered eligible for possible prosecution, 47 are considered too dangerous for release but are not facing prosecution, and 86 – more than half – have been cleared for transfer or release, Reuters reports.
The cost of keeping prisoners at Guantánamo, as well as any threat that they might return to the battlefield, has been debated since the island prison began housing detainees viewed as enemy combatants.
An investigative report by The Miami Herald termed Guantánamo “the most expensive prison on earth.”
The total annual cost of housing a single prisoner there per year, according to this report, is $800,000 – far more than the average annual cost per individual in the federal prison system – $28,284 – or the $38,091 per year in the “supermax” prison in Colorado.
This week, the Pentagon asked Congress for more than $450 million for maintaining and upgrading Guantánamo.
Other reports dispute the warning by some that large numbers of released prisoners would again take up the fight against the US. (Congressional Republicans claim that the recidivism rate is 28 percent.)
A report this month by the New America Foundation finds that of the 603 detainees released or transferred abroad by the Bush and Obama administrations, 53 – 8.8 percent – “are either confirmed to be or suspected of engaging in militant activities against either the US or non-US targets.”
Of those, according to this report, 38 are confirmed or suspected to be engaging in militant activities against US targets.
In addition to opposition from congressional Republicans and some Democrats, Obama faces a majority public opinion that wants to keep the Guantánamo prison open.
A Fox News poll Wednesday asks, “Would you rather the United States continue to hold terrorist suspects in the military prison at Guantánamo Bay and put more terrorist suspects there, or is it time to move them to federal prisons in the United States and close Gitmo?”
This poll finds 63 percent of voters want to keep the detention facility open, while 28 percent say it should be closed and the terrorist suspects moved to federal prisons in the US.
Earlier this month, a HuffPost/YouGov poll finds that 54 percent of those surveyed said the US should continue to operate Guantánamo, while 27 percent said it should be shut down.
“At the same time, 63 percent said the US should hold trials for the detainees held there, while only 20 percent said they are opposed to trials,” according to The Huffington Post report on the poll. “Given the choice, more respondents said these should be conducted before military tribunals (52 percent) than held in US courts (28 percent).”
Obama’s hour-long address Thursday covered a wide range of policy and philosophical issues related to the “The Future of Our Fight Against Terrorism,” as his speech was titled.
Guantánamo Bay came near the end, and it was the one segment interrupted by applause and by a woman in the audience – later identified as Medea Benjamin of the group Code Pink – shouting out her criticisms of Obama’s actions in regard to the controversial detention facility.
Although Obama has reengaged on Guantánamo and wants to close the facility, critics aren’t wholly satisfied.
“We are encouraged by his pledge to take concrete steps towards closing the prison at Guantánamo Bay,” said Virginia Sloan, president of The Constitution Project, a nonpartisan watchdog group, in a statement. “But actions speak louder than words.... If the president is truly serious about fulfilling his promise, he needs to immediately use the authority he currently has to begin transferring cleared detainees out of Guantánamo.”
Obama took flak from the right as well.
“The President’s speech today will be viewed by terrorists as a victory,” said Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R) of Georgia in a statement. “We knew five years ago that closing Guantanamo was a bad idea and would not work. Yet, today’s speech sends the message to Guantanamo detainees that if they harass the dedicated military personnel there enough, we will give in and send them home ....”