Current law prohibits the use of government funds to transfer prisoners to American soil and the construction of facilities to house them, and the Republican-controlled Congress has shown no interest in relenting on the matter. While Obama has an ally in former presidential rival Senator John McCain, who has long called for the closure of Guantanamo, congressional leaders have vowed to keep the prison open. Days after taking office last fall, House Speaker Paul Ryan said Guantanamo prisoners should remain there, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell last month called Guantanamo “the perfect place for terrorists.” The most recent polling on public sentiment on Guantanamo, from 2014, shows most Americans don’t want the prison to close.
The administration has hoped that as the prisoner population dwindles, the annual cost to taxpayers of maintaining a facility built to house hundreds—which in 2013, was $454 million—would convince lawmakers that keeping it open isn’t worth it. Indeed, the remaining prisoners at Guantanamo are outnumbered by the 2,000 or so guards and prison staff at the facility, according to The Miami Herald. Obama’s proposal calls for housing detainees in a U.S. facility that would require up to $475 million in construction costs and would save as much as $180 million per year in operating costs, according to the Associated Press.
Obama said Tuesday that for the American public, “the notion of having terrorists held in the United States rather than in some distant place can be scary.” But, he said, “we're already holding a bunch of really dangerous terrorists here in the United States … we’ve managed it just fine.” Federal prisons currently hold several hundred inmates convicted of domestic and international terrorism, including Richard Reid, the convicted shoe bomber, and Faisal Shahzad, the convicted Times Square plotter.
The plan met a provision in the current National Defense Authorization Act, approved in November, which directed the administration to send lawmakers within 90 days a “comprehensive strategy” for holding current and future detainees. The defense legislation also imposed new restrictions on transfers to countries whose security situations are considered unstable to accept former suspected terrorists, including Libya, Syria, Yemen and Somalia.
Of the prisoners remaining at Guantanamo, 35 have been cleared for release, deemed to no longer be a threat to national security. Obama said his administration will accelerate the review process for the others, and improve the military commissions system, the legal process by which several detainees have been tried.
Last year, the Pentagon scouted federal prisons in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and Charleston, South Carolina, as well as state and federal facilities in Florence, Colorado, as potential sites to house detainees.