President Barack Obama’s pledge Tuesday to close the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and transfer detainees to a facility in the United States drew sharp criticism from Tampa Bay area members of Congress and from a Tampa man who once ran the facility.
Obama cast his proposal as a way to shutter a facility that for years has raised legal questions and become a recruitment tool for extremists.
“I don’t want to pass this problem on to the next president, whoever it is,” Obama said in an appearance at the White House. “If we don’t do what’s required now, I think future generations are going to look back and ask why we failed to act when the right course, the right side of history and justice and our best American traditions was clear.”
Obama’s path to closure remained unclear, and his plan doesn’t specify where a new facility would be located. Moving detainees to U.S. soil is prohibited by U.S. law.
Jay Hood, a retired Army major general who ran Guantanamo from 2004 until 2006, called the closure plan “insufficient.”
“I don’t want to second-guess his desire, but I am concerned about him not having a plan,” said Hood, a Tampa resident who retired in 2012 after 36 years of military service.
The response delivered to Congress is “not sufficient to answer the questions that Congress has asked,” Hood said.
Hood once served at U.S. Central Command on a planning team observing Osama bin Laden and would later serve as chief of staff for the then-Centcom commander, Gen. David Petraeus. Hood was an artillery officer and assistant division commander of the 24th Infantry Division when he was selected to take over Guantanamo. The prison was opened by then-President George W. Bush to house those captured in Afghanistan and, later, Iraq.
“What is the alternative to the capability provided by Guantanamo for the safe and humane detention of enemy fighters?” Hood asked.
Of great concern, he said, is the future of the 35 detainees who have been determined to be eligible for transfer by national security departments and agencies.
“I am not confident that they can be repatriated,” he said. “Those are men who want to find their way back to the battlefield. I think most of the men still being held are a relatively hard-core group.”
Bay area congressional Republicans oppose Obama’s plan.
“While the president is trying to make good on his promise to close Gitmo, my promise to the American people is I will not support such a move,” said U.S. Rep. David Jolly, a Pinellas County Republican. “Moving enemy combatants on to United States soil will only embolden the enemies of freedom who wish to do us harm.”
U.S. Rep. Dennis Ross, a Lakeland Republican, issued a similar statement.
“President Obama’s announcement today to close the Guantanamo Bay terrorist detention facility proves once again he has absolutely no concern for the safety of our nation, its people or its allies,” Ross said. “The president’s actions are reprehensible and inexcusable.”
Even Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a former prisoner of war and an advocate of closing the prison, called Obama’s report a “vague menu of options” that does not include a policy for dealing with future terrorist detainees.
Obama has “missed a major chance to convince the Congress and the American people that he has a responsible plan to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility,” McCain said.
Others took issue with Obama’s characterization that the Guantanamo center is a terrorist recruiting tool.
Tom Joscelyn, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said it hasn’t been a staple of jihadi propaganda.
Speaking in Palm Harbor on Tuesday at the Global SOF Foundation Symposium on a panel about media in hybrid warfare, Joscelyn said the use of drones by the United States is far more important when it comes to recruiting terrorists.
“I study jihadi propaganda on a day-to-day basis,” he said. “Guantanamo is very minimal in terms of propaganda. There are a lot of issues that are far more important for recruiting.”
Momentum to close the facility has slowed dramatically. Congress remains deadlocked on less contentious matters, and the issue has little resonance on the presidential campaign trail.
Still, for Obama, the facility stands as a major unfulfilled promise and a painful reminder of the limits on his power: His first executive order sketched out a timeline for closing the prison but ultimately was derailed by Congress.
The White House has not ruled out the possibility that the president may again attempt to close the prison through executive action.
The proposal released Monday underscores the administration’s strategy of shrinking the inmate population, hoping the massive cost for housing the diminished population will make closure inevitable.
Under the plan, roughly 35 of the 91 current detainees will be transferred to other countries in the coming months, leaving up to 60 detainees who are either facing trial by military commission or have been determined to be too dangerous to release but are not facing charges.
Those detainees would be relocated to a U.S. facility that could cost up to $475 million to build. That expenditure would be offset by as much as $180 million a year in operating cost savings. The annual operating cost for Guantanamo is $445 million. The U.S. facilities would cost between $265 million and $305 million to operate each year, according to the proposal.
The plan considers, but does not name, 13 locations in the U.S., including seven existing prison facilities in Colorado, South Carolina and Kansas as well as six locations at current correctional facilities on state, federal or military sites in several states. It also notes that there could be all new construction on existing military bases.
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.