WASHINGTON – South Carolina Republicans in Congress are prepared to fight President Barack Obama on his plans to relocate Guantanamo Bay terror detainees to the U.S. — even without knowing for sure whether his administration favors the Navy brig outside Charleston.
The Pentagon submitted a report to Congress early Tuesday morning laying out its formal proposal to close the controversial Cuba detention center.
The 21-page document says there are 13 eligible facilities to host roughly 30 to 60 detainees, but it doesn’t list those facilities by name or express any preferences as to which would be most suitable.
However, administration officials acknowledged that, as previously reported, they explored Naval Consolidated Brig Charleston as a possibility, confirming the site remains an option, along with prisons in Colorado and Kansas.
The possibility that Charleston could be forced to host terrorist prisoners was enough to rile up members of the S.C. congressional delegation.
“There is simply no reason to put a target on an American community when we already have an isolated facility, well guarded by Marines that is more than capable of holding them,” said U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., referring to the Gitmo site.
“The detainees housed in Guantanamo are the most dangerous terrorists,” U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, another South Carolina Republican, weighed in. “They should not be housed at the Charleston Naval Brig — adjacent to schools, churches, neighborhoods and ports. Congress and the American public have spoken on this issue and it is time that the president listened.”
Gov. Nikki Haley also went on the offensive. “We have made our stance very clear: We will fight any attempt to bring terrorists into our states. This is no time to send terrorists back to the battlefield,” she wrote on Facebook.
Congressional approval of that plan would be legacy-making for Obama, who made closing the center a campaign promise all the way back in 2008 and now has just months left in the Oval Office. In a live televised address Tuesday morning, Obama called the Guantanamo Bay detention center “counterproductive to our fight against terrorists” and “a stain on our broader record of upholding the highest standards of the rule of law.”
Obama also appealed to defense and fiscal hawks by pointing out the facility “drains military resources,” and that closing it would lower costs by up to $85 million a year.
U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., who represents Charleston, was among those unimpressed with Obama’s arguments.
“The Obama Administration is arguing that it is cost-effective to close the site at Guantanamo Bay when so many of their policies have blatantly disregarded the issue of costs to the taxpayer,” he said.
Obama faces very steep odds to begin with in getting congressional approval of his closure and relocation plan. Congress has repeatedly included provisions in legislation barring the Obama administration from moving forward without the consent of the legislative branch — legislation Obama has himself signed into law. Even lawmakers who don’t represent potentially affected states have expressed strong opposition.
In transmitting a formal plan to Capitol Hill, congressional lawmakers now have the opportunity to engage directly with the White House, but it’s more likely the GOP-led House and Senate will explicitly condemn the report, if not ignore it altogether. Lawmakers will almost certainly continue to use the legislative process to maintain the transfer ban.
It was not immediately clear whether Obama would take executive action to close Gitmo on his own if he and Congress cannot broker a deal. Republicans like Scott, Wilson and Sanford continued to stress that going it alone would be “illegal” but Obama made no such threats of unilateral action during his remarks on Tuesday.
“We recognize that this is going to be a challenge,” Obama conceded from his lectern, flanked by Secretary of Defense Ash Carter and Vice President Joe Biden. “Even in an election year, we should be able to have an open, honest, good-faith dialogue.”
That dialogue could begin with congressional hearings. U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., is a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and close friend of the panel’s chairman, U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. Graham said he hoped the committee would convene to hear testimony from Pentagon officials and experts, but he panned the proposal as “pathetic.”
“I met with the president seven years ago in the Oval Office and gave him a proposal, a one page statute on how to close Gitmo. He has yet to call me,” said Graham, who recently ran for president himself. “He never reacted, so here we are.”
Graham and Scott told The Post and Courier it was puzzling the report did not include the names of possible relocation sites. Scott suspected it was because the White House had hoped to avoid “creating a ruckus with delegations all around the country.”
In the House. U.S. Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., has introduced legislation authorizing a lawsuit against the Obama administration should it proceed without congressional approval.
As congressional Democrats throughout Tuesday gradually came out in support of Obama’s efforts, U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, South Carolina’s lone Congressional Democrat and the third-ranking member in House Democratic leadership, demurred.
“I will wait and see what the president does,” Clyburn said in response to a question during a conference call in support of presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. “If he proposes something that would have an impact for me or for South Carolina, I would have something to say. But I don’t want to be getting out ahead of the president on that or anything else.”
The footprint of the brig is actually in Clyburn’s 6th District.
The Navy originally built the brig, located at the southern end of the Naval Weapons Station, as a medium-security holding site for military prisoners serving sentences of 10 years or less. But after 9/11, its mission expanded when terror detainee Yaser Esam Hamdi, an American citizen, was delivered there in 2002. He’d been captured on a battlefield in Afghanistan.
Two other high-profile inmates soon followed, including “dirty bomber” Jose Padilla, and Ali Saleh al-Marri, a Qatari arrested in Illinois as an alleged al-Qaida associate.
Maya T. Prabhu and Gavin Jackson contributed to this report. Emma Dumain is the Charleston Post and Courier’s Washington correspondent.