President Obama on Tuesday rolled out his plan to close the military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, calling on Congress to put aside partisan divisions over the controversial facility.
“I am absolutely committed to closing the detention facility at Guantánamo,” said Obama, who was flanked by Vice President Biden and Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter in the Roosevelt Room of the White House. “I am going to continue to make the case for doing so as long as I hold this office.”
“When it becomes clear that something is not working as intended when it does not advance our security, we have to change course,” Obama said.
“The detention facility at Guantánamo Bay does not advance our national security. It undermines it. It’s counterproductive to our fight against terrorists.”
It’s a last-ditch effort to shutter the facility, a goal he announced on his first day in office but thus far has failed to accomplish.
Closing the prison — which is housed on a U.S. naval base — has long been a centerpiece of Obama’s effort to turn the page in the war on terror started by his predecessor, George W. Bush.
The president has long argued the facility serves as a powerful recruiting tool for extremist groups such as the Islamic State and Iraq and Syria (ISIS), is too costly for the government to maintain and hurts the United States’s relationship with its allies.
There are 91 detainees held at the prison, down from 242 at the start of Obama’s first term. It costs $445 million per year to operate.
The Pentagon sent its latest blueprint for closing the prison to Congress, where it faces many obstacles to becoming reality.
The administration would plan to transfer 35 of the remaining 91 detainees who are deemed to pose a low security risk overseas. Between 30 and 60 of the remaining detainees would eventually be housed in a new facility on the U.S. mainland.
But Congress has banned Gitmo detainees from being transferred to the United States. Republican leaders in both chambers have been dead set against changing the law, especially in an election year, when concerns about terrorism are front and center on voters’ minds.
“His proposal fails to provide taxpayers with critical details required by law, including the exact cost and location of an alternate detention facility,” Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanJuan Williams: Pelosi shows her power Cheney takes shot at Trump: 'I like Republican presidents who win re-election' Cheney allies flock to her defense against Trump challenge MORE (R-Wis.) said in a statement moments after Obama spoke.
“It is against the law — and it will stay against the law — to transfer terrorist detainees to American soil. We will not jeopardize our national security over a campaign promise.”
Underscoring the hostile environment in Congress, Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainMcCain: Ivanka Trump, Jared Kushner had 'no goddamn business' attending father's funeral Meghan McCain: 'SNL' parodies made me feel like 'laughing stock of the country' Our military shouldn't be held hostage to 'water politics' MORE (R-Ariz.), who has expressed past support for shuttering the prison, called the president’s strategy “a vague menu of options, not a credible plan for closing Guantánamo.”
Obama acknowledged "the politics are tough" but urged lawmakers to consider the plan, arguing that fears about housing terrorists on U.S. soil are unfounded.
"We’re already holding a bunch of really dangerous terrorists here in the United States because we threw the book at them," he said. "And there have been no incidents. We’ve managed it just fine."
The president said closing Guantánamo enjoyed broad, bipartisan support at the outset of his administration. But he acknowledged much of that support has eroded because public fears have been "fanned oftentimes by misinformation."
"If it were easy, it would have happened years ago, as I wanted, as I have been working to try to get done," he said. "But there remains bipartisan support for closing it. And given the stakes involved for our security, this plan deserves a fair hearing. Even in an election year."
Closing down the prison at Guantánamo Bay and building a new facility would cost between $290 million and $475 million, but a new prison would save between $65 million and $85 million per year, according to a senior administration official.
The president stressed cost savings as a major selling point to the GOP-controlled Congress.
The plan considers 13 locations in the United States to place a new prison but does not recommend a specific site.
Pentagon officials have surveyed the naval brig in Charleston, S.C.; a military prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas; and a federal prison in Canon City, Colo., among other sites. It would also consider building a brand new prison at a Department of Defense facility.
Updated at 11:07 a.m.