President Obama unveiled Tuesday his long-anticipated proposal to close the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, saying it undermines national security and is contrary to American values.
“For many years, it’s been clear that the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay does not advance our national security,” Mr. Obama said at the White House.
Transitioning to a U.S. detention facility would entail one-time costs between $290 million and $475 million, but within three to five years, the lower operating cost of a U.S. facility with fewer detainees could fully offset the transition costs, according to a plan released by the Pentagon.
Since first winning election in 2008, Mr. Obama has repeatedly vowed to try to close the detention facility, saying it’s a recruiting tool for extremists.
But Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill have vociferously objected, and Congress has passed legislation forbidding Mr. Obama’s administration from transferring any detainees held at the facility to the United States.
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, Wisconsin Republican, reacted to the announcement by reiterating that Congress won’t allow the administration to transfer any detainees to the mainland U.S.
“After seven years, President Obama has yet to convince the American people that moving Guantanamo terrorists to our homeland is smart or safe,” Mr. Ryan said. “And he doesn’t seem interested in continuing to try.”
Mr. Ryan said the president’s proposal “fails to provide critical details required by law, including the exact cost and location of an alternate detention facility.”
“Congress has left no room for confusion,” the speaker said. “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.”
Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain, Arizona Republican who agreed with Mr. Obama during their 2008 presidential contest on the need to close the prison, said the plan isn’t responsible.
“What we received today is a vague menu of options, not a credible plan for closing Guantanamo, let alone a coherent policy to deal with future terrorist detainees,” Mr. McCain said in a statement. “After years of rhetoric, the president has still yet to say how and where he will house both current and future detainees, including those his administration has deemed as too dangerous to release.”
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California said the president offered a “strong, detailed plan.”
“The reality is Guantanamo hurts, rather than advances our efforts to keep America safe and combat terrorism abroad,” Mr. Pelosi said in a statement. “Closing the detention facility at Guantanamo will strengthen our national security and affirm our values and laws. It is disappointing that Republicans have worked to prevent the long-overdue closure of the Guantanamo facility.”
Even as he signed annual defense spending bills, Mr. Obama has repeatedly issued statements saying he reserves the right to transfer terrorism suspects if it’s in the United States’ national security interest.
There are 91 detainees remaining at the facility, compared to more than 200 when Mr. Obama took office.
The plan is likely to be greeted with stiff opposition from a GOP-controlled Congress, and there were Republican objections Tuesday even before Mr. Obama laid out his plans.
“The American people have a right to expect that the administration will be transparent and honest with them about the activities and associations of the terrorists who remain at Guantanamo, and the administration’s refusal to do so only underscores the fact that closing Guantanamo will make Americans less safe,” said Sen. Kelly Ayotte, New Hampshire Republican.
Senior administration officials said they have looked at 13 possible sites on the mainland U.S. to transfer as many as 60 Guantanamo detainees. The sites include federal prisons in Colorado, South Carolina and Kansas.
Officials said they cannot accurately estimate the cost of building a new prison to hold the detainees, in part because Congress has forbidden the administration from spending money on such preparations.
The president said he intends to move ahead with plans to transfer 35 of the remaining detainees to other countries. And he said some of the other detainees should be tried in federal court rather than before military tribunals, saying the cases of prosecuting in court other terrorists such as Richard Reid, the so-called “shoe bomber,” have worked out “just fine.”
“It proves that we can both prosecute terrorists and protect the American people,” Mr. Obama said. “We’re already holding a bunch of really dangerous terrorists here in the United States because we’ve thrown the book at them. We’ve managed it just fine.”
Fifteen years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the president said, “This is about closing a chapter in our history.”
Senior administration officials wouldn’t speculate on whether Mr. Obama might issue an executive order to close Gitmo, should Congress fail to work with the White House on the plan. But Mr. Obama said he doesn’t want to leave the problem for the next president.
On the same day that Mr. Obama announced his plan, police in Spain and Morocco said they had arrested four suspected members of a jihadi cell that sought to recruit fighters for the Islamic State group, including a former Guantanamo detainee who once fought with militants in Afghanistan.
Spanish authorities didn’t name the former Gitmo detainee but described the suspect as “a leader who was trained in handling weapons, explosives and in military tactics.” After being captured in 2002 and held in Guantanamo, he was returned to Spain in 2004, said Interior Minister Jorge Fernandez Diaz.
Senior Obama officials say that about 10 percent of former Guantanamo detainees have gone back to the battlefield after being released to other countries.
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.