WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama has unveiled plans to transfer the last remaining detainees at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and shut down the controversial facility for good.
The plan faces an uncertain future in Congress but, if enacted, it would close the book on Guantanamo and its tortured legacy, considered by many a symbol of the excesses of the U.S. war on terror launched in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, attacks.
"With this plan, we have the opportunity finally to eliminate a terrorist propaganda tool, strengthen relationships with allies and partners, enhance our national security and most importantly, uphold the values that bind us as Americans," Obama said in a White House briefing on February 23. "I am absolutely committed to closing the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay."
"I don't want to pass this problem onto the next president, whoever it is. Are we going to let this linger on for another 15 years?" he said. "If we don't deal with this now, when are we going to deal with this?"
Administration officials said a total of 91 detainees were still housed at the facility, with 35 already cleared by U.S. officials to be transferred to third countries pending their governments' final approval.
The remaining 56 are considered too dangerous to release.The plan announced on February 23 proposes housing them in 13 facilities in the United States.
Opposition from congressional lawmakers is likely, particularly given it is an election year both for legislators and to choose Obama's successor in the White House.
Lawmakers have passed legislation barring the White House from moving Guantanamo prisoners to U.S. facilities.
Yet some leading Republicans -- including Senator John McCain -- have expressed agreement with Obama's position that Guantanamo was a waste of money, did little to enhance U.S. security, and undermined U.S. values. Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush, also spoke openly of wanting to shut the facility down.
Underscoring the challenges, however, McCain criticized the plan released on February 23, calling it a "vague menu of options, not a credible plan."
'A Stain On Our Record'
Opened on January 22, 2002, and known informally as "Gitmo," the collection of concrete cells, watchtowers, and razor-wire fences held nearly 680 prisoners at one point. Many of the inmates it has housed were picked up on the battlefields of Afghanistan after the U.S. invasion in late 2001.
As the war on terror expanded to Iraq and other theaters, however, the Bush administration struggled to house the detainees and sort determined terrorists from those swept up without just cause.
The Bush administration also struggled with how to prosecute the detainees, and whether they would receive legal protections under U.S. laws or the Geneva Conventions. The U.S. Supreme Court issued two landmark decisions striking down plans to try Guantanamo detainees under military commissions.
Congress subsequently passed the Military Commission Act in an attempt to address concerns.
Of those now being held, seven are in the early stages of trial by military commission. They include five men accused of planning and aiding the September 11 terrorist attack. Three have been convicted and are serving sentences.
In announcing his proposal, Obama also made the argument that the cost of housing the detainees at Guantanamo was excessive. He said transferring the remaining inmates to mainland U.S. facilities would lower costs by $85 million a year, and save $1.7 billion over 20 years.
He also said that U.S. courts were capable of handling complex terror prosecutions, pointing to the example of Richard Reid, the so-called "shoe bomber," and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, convicted of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings. Both were prosecuted in U.S. federal courts.
"Keeping this facility open is contrary to our values," he said. "It undermines our standing in the world. It is a stain on our broader record of upholding the highest standards of the rule of law."
Earlier on February 23, U.S. administration officials said the Pentagon's plan to close the military's detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, references 13 potential sites for detainees to be transferred to U.S. soil.
The officials did not name the possible replacement facilities.