President Obama said Thursday he hopes to show Americans that the Guantanamo Bay detention center is too expensive for taxpayers as he continues to move detainees out of the prison.
At a news conference in Laos, where he was wrapping up a nine-day trip to Asia, Mr. Obama said he hasn’t given up on closing Gitmo before he leaves office in January.
“I am not ready to concede that it may still remain open because we’re still working diligently to continue to shrink the population,” the president said.
As the number of prisoners dwindles, he said, the cost per detainee rises.
“As we continue to shrink the population to the point where we’re looking at 40 or 50 people and are maintaining a multimillion-dollar operation to house these handfuls of individuals, I think the American people should be asking the question, why are we spending this kind of money that could be spent on other things when it’s not necessary for our safety and security?” Mr. Obama said.
Human Rights First said taxpayers spent $445 million on the military prison in 2015, when it held between 122 and 107 detainees. That worked out to roughly $4 million per detainee.
“It’s not necessary and it’s hugely expensive for U.S. taxpayers,” the president said.
HRF said the average cost of keeping a prisoner at a maximum-security federal prison is just over $34,000 per year. At a federal Supermax prison, the highest-security federal prison, the cost is $78,000 per year.
Economy could be a tough argument for Mr. Obama, under whose stewardship the total national debt has risen from $10.6 trillion to nearly $20 trillion.
Vice President Joseph R. Biden said late last month that he expects the administration to close the prison at Gitmo before Mr. Obama leaves office.
Congress has repeatedly blocked Mr. Obama’s efforts to close the prison at Gitmo in Cuba and transfer some of the detainees to prisons on the U.S. mainland. Lawmakers in both parties have raised concerns that the terrorism suspects could serve as a magnet for more attacks on the homeland.
“There’s no doubt that because of the politics in Congress right now, it is a tough row to hoe,” Mr. Obama said. “But I expect to work really hard over the next four months … four-and-a-half months.”
Mr. Obama asserted again that the prison “is a recruitment tool for terrorist organizations.”
“It clouds and sours some of the counterterrorism cooperation that we need to engage in,” he said.
Republican nominee Donald Trump has said he would keep open Gitmo if elected president. During the news conference, the president urged the media and voters to challenge Mr. Trump’s “whacky” proposals, and he reiterated that the Republican nominee isn’t qualified to be president.
“The most important thing for the public and the press is to just listen to what he says and follow up and ask questions to what appear to be either contradictory or uninformed or outright whacky ideas,” Mr. Obama said of Mr. Trump. The president said Mr. Trump isn’t fit to serve as commander-in-chief.
“I don’t think the guy is qualified to be president of the United States and every time he speaks that opinion is confirmed,” Mr. Obama said. “This is serious business, you have to know what you’re talking about and you have to have done your homework.”
He said that if voters really listen to what Mr. Trump was saying, he’s confident that people will make a good decision on Election Day in November.
“People start thinking that we should be grading on a curve,” Mr. Obama said. “I have confidence that if, in fact, people just listen to what he has to say or look at his track record — or lack thereof — that they’ll make a good decision.”
Mr. Trump blasted the president Wednesday night at a forum on national security, saying Russian President Vladimir Putin has been a stronger leader.
The president’s final trip to Asia included some friction and insults from other world leaders, notably Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, whose meeting with Mr. Obama in Laos was canceled after he referred to him with a vulgar term.
As he prepared to return home to Washington, Mr. Obama told reporters he had a “terrific” trip.
“Everywhere we’ve gone, we’ve had a great reception,” he said. “My hope and expectation is, is that my successor will, in fact, sustain this kind of engagement, because there is a lot happening here.”
The president will try to persuade Congress to approve a free-trade deal with Asia-Pacific nations in his final months in office, despite opposition from lawmakers in both parties. He said Asia is crucial to economic growth by the U.S.
“This is where the action is going to be when it comes to commerce and trade, and ultimately creating U.S. jobs by being able to sell to this market,” he said.