10 highlights from Guantanamo closure plan

By CAROL ROSENBERG | Miami Herald | Published: February 24, 2016

GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba (Tribune News Service) — The Obama administration’s rollout of its plan to close the detention center in Cuba by releasing some captives and moving others to a site in the United States revealed some intriguing aspects of its vision of a “Guantanamo North” now forbidden by Congress.

1. It envisions war-on-terror detainees captured after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks being held in a U.S. military prison for the next 20 years. “Transitioning to a U.S. detention facility would entail certain one-time costs,” the report says, but predicts “up to $1.7 billion in net savings over 20 years” compared to keeping them at Guantanamo.

2. It’s silent on whether President Barack Obama believes he has unilateral authority to ignore Congress and move the men to the United States. Congress prohibits in a variety of laws that control taxpayer funds and the official line is the White House wants to work with Congress. But a senior administration official who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity said the authority for U.S. military detention without charge derives from the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force. That gave President George W. Bush an array of commander-in-chief authority.

3. Obama said in a White House address Tuesday that he wants help from Congress in tweaking Military Commissions, the post- 9/11 war court that would come to U.S. soil along with the detainees. “They are very costly, they have resulted in years of litigation without a resolution,” he said Tuesday. Pentagon and White House officials refused to elaborate, noting it was prospective pending legislation.

4. The Obama administration looked at 13 sites, seven of which are publicly known, but doesn’t rule out starting from scratch and building a prison inside a military base somewhere in the United States. The known sites are in Kansas, South Carolina and Colorado. Administration officials were adamant in their refusal to identify the other six sites, probably to avoid further outbreaks of “Nimby-ism,” derived from the expression “Not in My Backyard.”

5. The plan envisions the U.S. military moving at most 56 of the last 91 captives now at Guantanamo to the U.S., and perhaps as few as 30 as more go through parole board reviews. Those moved would include the 10 al-Qaida suspects currently in war court proceedings, including alleged Sept. 11 terror attack mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four accused accomplices awaiting a death-penalty trial. Also some detainees held for a decade or more still considered candidates for trial as well as an unknown number of “forever prisoners.” The administration calls them Law of War detainees whom a 2009 Task Force decided were ineligible for trial but too dangerous to release.

6. By envisioning as few as 30 detainees, the administration is signaling it can find nations to accept up to 61 captives cleared for release, and provide security assurances. Many of them are Yemeni and can’t go home both by the latest National Defense Policy law and White House policy that deems the Arabian Peninsula nation with a powerful al-Qaida franchise too unstable. By law, Libya, Somalia and Syria are off-limits as transfer countries, too. A few detainees across the years have spurned resettlement offers out of fear, recently a Yemeni man who made it as far as the plane but wouldn’t go to southern Europe.

7. Bringing them to the United States would let federal attorneys examine their cases for federal charges, and possibly plea deals, something the Obama administration wanted to do before Congress outlawed bringing captives to the U.S. for trial. Once charged, the military would have to transfer the detainees to federal lockups, like any other charged terror suspect. The Obama administration succeeded in doing this once, by moving former CIA captive Ahmed Ghailani from Guantanamo to New York. He was convicted for his role in the bombings of East Africa embassies and is now serving life at the Florence, Colo., Supermax.

8. It disclosed a higher cost than was previously known to run the war court and detention center — $445 million in 2015. If it costs that much now, it works out to $4.9 million a year for each detainee. White House officials had earlier used the figure $399 million, but said Tuesday that was 2014 expenditures and revised their total upward for the more than $5 billion detention center.

9. The plan offers fuzzy and confused math on what it would cost to maintain 56 or fewer detainees in a military lockup in the United States. But one portion of the plan put annual costs of 30 to 57 prisoners and the war court at $265 million to $305 million a year. That crunches to $10.1 million per prisoner if just 30 were moved to a $305 million a year military detention center or $4.6 million per prisoner in a 57-captive, $265 million detention center. By all these measures, still the Most Expensive Prison on Earth.

10. The plan envisions cost savings by downsizing the 2,000-strong military and civilian staff that currently run the detention center but doesn’t say if staff would be professional, military guards or would continue with temporary mostly National Guard Military Police. “Most of the savings would result from a decrease in the number of U.S. personnel necessary to guard and care for a smaller detainee population, and associated reductions in operations and facility costs.”

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