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Lawmakers declare Obama's plans for Guantanamo Bay prison closure a non-starter

Staff and wire reports
February 23. 2016 9:34PM
U.S. Navy guards escort a detainee through Camp Delta at Guantanamo Bay naval base in a June 10, 2008, file photo provided by the U.S. Department of Defense. President Barack Obama urged lawmakers on Tuesday to give his plan to close the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, a "fair hearing" and said he did not want to pass the issue to his successor when he leaves the White House next year. (REUTERS/DoD/1st Lt. Sarah Cleveland/Handout via Reuters)

President Obama launched a final push on Tuesday to persuade Congress to close the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, but lawmakers opposed to rehousing detainees in the United States declared his plan a non-starter.

The day before Obama’s announcement, New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte and three fellow Republican senators introduced a bill that would forbid the President from giving the United States naval base at Guantanamo back to Cuba without proper congressional approval.

Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida, Tom Cotton of Arizona and Richard Burr of North Carolina joined Ayotte in introducing the Naval Station Guantanamo Bay Protection Act.

“Guantanamo Bay is a major and irreplaceable national security asset for the United States in a region that will only become more important to the safety of Americans in the future,” Ayotte said. “I will oppose any effort to relinquish U.S. control of this vital base to Cuba.”

Obama promised to shut down the Guantanamo Bay Detention Facility, known as Gitmo, during his first presidential campaign. But eight years later, the controversial prison remains open.

In White House remarks, Obama pleaded with the Republican-led Congress to give his proposal a “fair hearing.” The question of closing the prison is separate from the future of the Naval base, but opponents of both ideas see them as linked.

Obama will be traveling to Cuba next month as part of his ongoing efforts to normalize relations between the United States and the communist regime. Cuban President Raul Castro has indicated that returning Guantanamo Bay to Cuba is a precondition of normalization. Closing the prison is seen as a first step is abandoning the base.

U.S. sites not identified

The Pentagon plan for Gitmo closure proposes 13 potential sites on U.S. soil for the transfer of remaining detainees but does not identify the facilities or endorse a specific one.

“It is incredibly revealing that after years of examining alternatives to Guantanamo, the plan released by the administration today does not endorse a specific location in the U.S. for relocating Guantanamo terrorists and does not include a credible strategy for the detention of future terrorist detainees,” Ayotte said in announcing her opposition.

The United States first seized Guantanamo Bay and established a naval base there in 1898 during the Spanish-American War

“Let us go ahead and close this chapter,” Obama said. “Keeping this facility open is contrary to our values ... It is viewed as a stain on our broader record of upholding the highest standards of rule of law.”

The prison, which Obama said once held nearly 800 detainees, now houses 91. Some 35 prisoners will be transferred to other countries this year, leaving the final number below 60, officials said.

Obama’s plan would send detainees who have been cleared for transfer to their homelands or third countries, and transfer remaining prisoners to U.S. soil to be held in maximum-security prisons. Congress has banned such transfers to the United States since 2011.

“Americans do not want Guantanamo terrorists in their communities, and Congress has repeatedly affirmed the will of the people by prohibiting the administration from moving detainees to the U.S.,” Ayotte said.

Mixed reaction

Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan, who is challenging Ayotte for the Senate seat, was cool to the President’s proposal, even though she has previously been open to the idea.

“I have been clear that Guantanamo Bay should not be closed without a plan that ensures our safety and security,” she said. “And while I will review the details of the administration’s proposal, I’m skeptical that it does enough to advance our national security interests and to prevent dangerous terrorists from returning to the battlefield.”

Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, who is not up for re-election this year, expressed her support.

“For far too long, the Guantanamo Bay Detention Facility has undermined our nation’s standing in the world and has served as a recruitment tool for terrorists.

Last year, it cost the American taxpayer nearly a half-billion dollars to house around 100 detainees,” she said.

“I believe we can and we must do better. Our country has a proven track record of trying terrorists, delivering the justice they deserve, and imprisoning them safely and securely.”

Democratic Second District Rep. Ann McLane Kuster was more reserved. “Maintaining our national security and the safety of Americans at home and abroad must remain our government’s highest priority,” she said. “We must also stay true to our core ideals and principles. I look forward to reviewing the President’s plan to ensure that it protects our citizens and strengthens our country’s commitment to human rights.”

Republican First District Rep. Frank Guinta accused the President of trying to usurp Congressional authority.

“Congress must unite to prevent another reckless foreign policy decision from this administration, which refuses to clearly recognize threats to the United States,” he said.

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