Obama: Guantanamo Closure Is 'About Closing A Chapter In Our History'

Tuesday, February 23rd 2016, 11:57 am
By: News 9

President Obama on Tuesday asked Congress to consider the administration's plan to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, arguing that it's about "closing a chapter in our history."

"I am very clear-eyed about the hurdles to finally closing Guantanamo. The politics of this are tough. If it were easy, it would have happened years ago," Mr. Obama said. "But given the stakes involved for our security this plan deserves fair hearing. Even in an election year we should be able to have an open, honest good faith dialogue about how to ensure our national security."

"Let us do what is right for America," he added.

On Tuesday, the Pentagon formally submitted a plan to Congress to close the detention facility by continuing to transfer approved detainees abroad and moving the remainder to a facility in the United States -- a concept that faced stiff opposition in Congress even before the White House released made it public.

The plan contains four central components: Continue to transfer abroad those detainees who have already been approved for release; speed up the process of reviewing the remaining detainees to determine whether they must remain detained indefinitely; identify and improve legal tools to deal with the detainees who cannot be released; and work with Congress to find a location in the U.S. to house the remaining detainees who cannot be released because they pose an imminent threat to the U.S.

"I think a lot of the American public are worried about terrorism and in their mind the notion of having terrorists held in the United States rather than in some distant place can be scary. But part of my message to the American people is we're already holding a bunch of really dangerous terrorists in the United States because we threw the book at them and there have been no incidents. We've managed it just fine," Mr. Obama said Tuesday.

The president pledged to close the prison during his 2008 campaign for president and said last year that if he could go back to the start of his presidency, "I would've closed Guantanamo on the first day."

He has long argued that Guantanamo Bay is inconsistent with U.S. values, provides a valuable recruiting tool for terrorists, causes friction with U.S. allies and is a huge cost burden.

Senior administration officials who briefed reporters on the plan were optimistic that 35 of the 91 prisoners that remain there -- mostly Yemeni nationals -- could be transferred abroad in the next several months, CBS News State Department Correspondent Margaret Brennan reports. Fewer than 60 remaining prisoners would be transferred to the U.S., 46 of whom would be screened by the Periodic Review Board for potential release. Ten prisoners are already in the military commission process, and the administration plans to work with Congress to find a location in the U.S. to securely hold detainees who would be subject to military court trial.

The Defense Department estimates it will cost between $290 and $475 million to set up these facilities, up to $85 million less per year than keeping Guantanamo open.

When he spoke Tuesday, Mr. Obama noted that former President Bush wanted to close the facility, as did 2008 Republican presidential nominee John McCain. But he acknowledged that opposition to closing the prison remains high, in part because of "fears of the public that have been fanned oftentimes by misinformation."

Yet the president's statement was greeted almost immediately with a rejection from House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin.

"His proposal fails to provide critical details required by law, including the exact cost and location of an alternate detention facility," Ryan said in a statement. "Congress has left no room for confusion. It is against the law -- and it will stay against the law -- to transfer terrorist detainees to American soil. We will not jeopardize our national security over a campaign promise."

Last month, Congress passed a $607 billion defense policy bill that bars the president from transferring any of the remaining detainees to the U.S. Mr. Obama signed the bill, but he included a signing statement warning that, "Under certain circumstances, the provisions in this bill concerning detainee transfers would violate constitutional separation of powers principles."

The administration's plan purposefully does not identify a specific location to house the detainees and instead proposes working with Congress to find one. The Pentagon mentions 13 potential facilities in its proposal but surveyed even more than that.

In an interview Tuesday on WMAL Radio, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, said he was at least willing to hold a hearing on the president's plan.

But after the plan was released he said that would be "impossible" because the White House had withheld "critical details."

"Among the information missing is the proposed location for a new detention facility. More than seven years after he first ordered the detention center at GTMO closed, I find it telling that the White House has either failed to work out these important details or they know, but refuse to disclose them, to the American public. It suggests to me that the President is more interested in fulfilling a campaign promise at any cost, than in transparently addressing the risk associated with bringing terrorists to the United States," Thornberry said.

Additionally, Republican Sens. Richard Burr of North Carolina, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Marco Rubio of Florida -- who is also running for the Republican nomination -- introduced a bill Monday requiring the president to get congressional approval to modify, terminate, abandon or transfer the lease of the land that currently contains Naval Station Guantanamo Bay.