President Barack Obama promised to close the Guantánamo Bay terrorist prison as one of his first acts in office. Seven years later, he can only hope it’s one of his last – and only if Republicans in Congress finally come to their senses.
On Tuesday, he submitted the formal shutdown plan that Congress required and rightly argued, again, that keeping Guantánamo open is bad for taxpayers and bad for our national security.
Under the president’s plan, 35 of the 91 remaining detainees will be transferred to other countries in the next several months. The others – facing a military commission or too dangerous to release – would be imprisoned in a new facility in the United States.
While the new prison would cost as much as $475 million to build, it would cost as much as $180 million a year less to operate than Guantánamo, which housed 670 detainees in 2003 but now sits largely empty. Keeping Guantánamo open would require spending $225 million for upgrades, the administration says.
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Besides the financial burden, there’s a cost to America’s standing in the world – “a stain on our broader record of upholding the highest standards of rule of law,” as Obama said. Following the rule of law also means prosecuting detainees in military tribunals or federal courts, not just holding them indefinitely without charges on U.S. soil.
Obama is absolutely correct that the next president will have more than enough to do without Guantánamo. “I don’t want to pass this problem on to the next president, whoever it is,” he said.
While the president has common sense and moral clarity on his side, he acknowledged that the politics are tough. That’s an understatement with Republican presidential candidates fanning fears of terrorism. Some, most notably Donald Trump, are calling for bringing back waterboarding and worse. Republican leaders in Congress declared the plan dead on arrival.
Obama’s critics, however, still haven’t made a convincing argument why federal “supermax” prisons are safe enough for other terrorists, including shoe bomber Richard Reid, but not secure enough for Guantánamo detainees. And where was the Republican outrage when the Bush administration released more than 530 detainees, compared to 150 under Obama?
Still, it’s highly unlikely there will be any movement until after the November election. First, Congress would have to overturn a provision in the defense budget passed last November that forbids Obama from moving any detainees to the United States.
If Congress doesn’t act, would a lame-duck Obama take the extraordinary step of using his executive power? He wouldn’t say Tuesday.
There would be a lot of screaming on Capitol Hill. But the newly elected president might breathe a sigh of relief, along with the rest of us.