Since President Obama’s inauguration last month, his unfulfilled promise to close Guantanamo Bay Detention Center has once again risen to the forefront of the public discourse. Throughout his campaign as a presidential candidate, and into his first term as President of the United States, Obama stated multiple times that he was going to ensure Guantanamo closed its doors. In fact, on January 22, 2009, he began his second term in office by signing an Executive Order directing that, “the detention facilities at Guantánamo for individuals covered by this order shall be closed as soon as practicable, and no later than 1 year from the date of this order.”
Why, then, in 2013, four years after this Executive Order, is Guantanamo still open?
During the Executive Order’s signing ceremony, Obama made it clear that closing Guantanamo would be accomplished in a manner that prioritized United States national security and foreign policy interests. This may be true, but as we have seen throughout Obama’s first term as President, closing Guantanamo is far easier said than done.
A lot of the pushback against closing GTMO comes from our representatives. Congress has used its spending oversight authority both to forbid the White House from financing trials of Guantánamo captives on U.S. soil and to block the acquisition of a state prison in Illinois to hold captives currently held in Cuba who would not be put on trial — a sort of Guantánamo North. Despite these road blocks, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the Senate Intelligence Committee chairwoman, has indicated recently that “if the political will exists, we could finally close Guantanamo without imperiling our national security.”
If President Obama wants to close GTMO, he needs to take some serious action soon, and establish a concrete plan that will garner support from the public, but more importantly, the politicians voting for his plan. Today, most Republicans and some Democrats remain opposed to closing the facility. House Armed Services Chairman Buck McKeon has said, “no one has ever argued that Guantanamo Bay is ideal, but before you talk about closing it you have to tell the country what you will replace it with.”
While politicians cite a variety of reasons for opposing closing down GTMO, it frequently comes down to cost and safety. A quick look at operating costs reveals it is far cheaper to house the remaining GTMO detainees in the United States vs. at the facility.
As of today, the 166 detainees held at Guantanamo costs the United States an astounding $114 million each year to operate. Transferring these detainees to a facility in the United States would be far cheaper. According to John Maki, who heads the John Howard Association (a watchdog group that monitors Illinois prisons), it cost $26 million annually to run the Tamms Supermax in Illinois- a recently closed prison with fewer than 200 inmates which was frequently referred to as being “tougher than GTMO.” That’s 22.8% of the cost of operating GTMO.
As to the safety argument, Senator John Thune, Republican of South Dakota, has stated that “the American people don’t want these men walking the streets of America’s neighborhoods.” Ignorant comments like this are tainting public opinion. As dangerous as some of these men may be, they will in no way be “walking the streets of America’s neighborhoods.” They would be locked up in a highly secure prison- no more dangerous than the murderers, rapists, and other criminals they would be sharing their facility with.
Thus, it is clear that the real hurdle to closing GTMO is the fear mongering of our Congress. America is ready for GTMO to close, we just need our elected representatives to get on board with us.
Paul Juzdan, Research Fellow
Center for Policy and Research