President Barack Obama’s ambitious plan to shut down the Guantanamo Bay prison facility by 2010 was dealt a major blow when lawmakers refused to earmark funds in a military spending bill Congress approved last week that would have allowed the federal government to purchase a near-empty maximum security prison in Illinois to house some detainees.
As a result, Guantanamo will not be shut down until 2011 at the earliest, according to a report published Wednesday in the New York Times.
Obama had hoped to close the detention center by January 22, 2010 but he acknowledged in November he would miss that deadline, which he set shortly after being sworn in as president.
Closing Guantanamo is “just technically hard,” Obama said in an interview with Fox News last month. “We are on a path and a process where I would anticipate that Guantanamo will be closed next year. I’m not going to set an exact date because a lot of this is also going to depend on cooperation from Congress.”
Obama also called upon Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to work with Holder to prepare Thomson “for secure housing of [Guantanamo] detainees who have been or will be designated for relocation, and shall relocate such detainees to” the Illinois prison.
The Times reported that “officials estimated that it could take 8 to 10 months to install new fencing, towers, cameras and other security upgrades before any transfers take place. Such construction cannot begin until the federal government buys the prison from the State of Illinois.”
The federal Bureau of Prisons does not have enough money to pay Illinois for the center, which would cost about $150 million. Several weeks ago, the White House approached the House Appropriations Committee and floated the idea of adding about $200 million for the project to the military spending bill for the 2010 fiscal year, according to administration and Congressional officials.
But Democratic leaders refused to include the politically charged measure in the legislation. When lawmakers approved the bill on Dec. 19, it contained no financing for Thomson.
The Obama administration may revisit the funding issues in March or April, when Congress is expected to take up an emergency supplemental bill to pay for the Afghanistan troop surge.
But the current focus for Thomson financing, according to the Times, “is the appropriations legislation for the 2011 fiscal year. Congress will not take that measure up until late 2010.”
Earlier this year, Demcorats, under pressure from Republicans, flatly rejected Obama’s request for $80 million to shut down Guantanamo, saying they were concerned about relocating some detainees to US soil and wanted to first learn the fate of the 240 men who were still imprisoned at the facility at the time.
“Democrats under no circumstances will move forward without a comprehensive, responsible plan from the president,” Senate Majority Leader told reporters back in May after the senate rebuffed the White House’s funding request “We will never allow terrorists to be released into the United States.”
Obama’s plan to shutter Guantanamo, which the ACLU said has become the symbol of “American lawlessness and human rights violations,” within a year after being sworn into office proved to be much more difficult than he or his administration had anticipated and is believed to have played a major role in the resignation of White House Counsel Greg Craig.
Last August, the Wall Street Journal reported that Craig had “a rocky tenure” over some national security issues that have become “political liabilities” for President Obama.
“These include the closure of the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the release of Bush administration-era national-security documents, and efforts to find legal ways to indefinitely hold some detainees who can’t be put on trial,” the Journal reported at the time, citing unnamed sources.
According to the Journal’s report:
Mr. Craig has come under criticism from inside the administration and in Congress for a perceived failure to manage the political issues that have originated from Mr. Obama’s decision to close Guantanamo, according to officials in the administration and in Congress. This criticism has drawn focus away from president’s priorities, such as health care and energy.
In announcing Craig’s resignation in November, the Washington Post reported that Craig intended to use his position as White House counsel to “smooth some initiatives he cared most about, including reversing the Bush-era detainee policies.”
Indeed, he took the job of closing the prison facility so seriously that when Bermuda agreed to take several detainees from Guantanamo, Craig personally flew with them to the island.
But just a few months in office left Craig disenchanted with the political process and some senior White House officials frustrated with the operations of the counsel’s office. Some critics pointed to mistakes along the way, including the administration’s failure to anticipate congressional opposition to closing the detention facility.
The Times report noted that because Obama has been unsuccessful in securing the funds needed to purchase the Thomson prison, administration officials considered “invoking a little-known statute that would allow the president to declare a national emergency and then use military funds allocated for other construction projects to buy and retrofit the Illinois prison.”
That statute, however, has never been used for a project quite like this one. Fearing that lawmakers would be angered by such a move and could respond by erasing the statute, the administration decided not to invoke it.
Last week, in a joint statement, Sen. Dick Durbin, (D-Illinois), and Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn today praised the plan to relocate some Guantnamo prisoners to the Thomson Correctional Center, saying it would lead to the creation of “more than 3,000 jobs and [inject] more than $1 billion into the local economy.”
However, Vincent Warren, executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, said Obama’s proposal fails to tackle lingering constitutional questions.
“The vast majority of detainees remaining at Guantanamo will never be charged with anything,” Warren said. “Yet the president has made clear that he believes he can continue to hold these men, most of whom have already been in Guantanamo for eight years and should never have been detained in the first place, for as long as he wants without any trial whatsoever.
“Will they now be subject to inhuman conditions of solitary confinement in a maximum security facility despite the fact that they will never be charged with anything and have been approved for release? For them Thomson, Illinois, may be worse than Guantanamo. While the fear-mongering over bringing any of the men to the US is opportunistic and entirely political, we cannot support this latest move merely to shut down the symbol of Guantanamo without dismantling the injustice of Guantanamo.”