Tuesday, August 30, 2016

The High Cost of the War on Terror - Guantanamo Bay Detention Facility

As I recently posted here, one of President Obama's unfulfilled first term campaign promises was his pledge to close the terrorist prison facility at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.  In this posting I want to look at how much this facility costs U.S. taxpayers and how the Department of Defense would handle the detainees if Congress were to green light changes to how these prisoners are housed and how much this could save taxpayers.  This issue is covered in a Department of Defense document entitled "Plan for Closing the Guantanamo Bay Detention Facility".

Over its life, Guantanamo has held 779 prisoners in total with 708 being released or transferred along with nine deaths and one who was transferred to the United States for trial.  More than 500 prisoners were transferred by the Bush II Administration and 176 were transferred by the current administration with 15 releases in August 2016 alone, the largest release that has taken place during the Obama Administration.  Interestingly, six of these men had been approved for release by Obama's Guantanamo task force way back in 2010.  As of August 2016, there were 61 detainees still in custody at Guantanamo as shown on this listing:

The federal government/Department of Defense is currently pursing three means of ridding itself of the detainees currently remaining:

1.) identifying opportunities for transferring those detainees that have already been designated as transferable.

2.) review the security threat posed by the detainees that are not eligible for transfer and who are not facing military commission charges.

3.) continue and complete ongoing military commission prosecutions and, for those detainees who remain designated for continued law of war detention, identify disposition where possible including one or more of the following:

i.) military commission prosecution.
ii.) transfer to third countries.
iii.) foreign prosecutions.
iv.) transfer to the United States for protection and to serve sentences (Congress must lift the ban on transfers of detainees to the United States).

Countries that receive Guantanamo's detainees must assure the United States that they will take the necessary security measures to mitigate any threat from the former detainee and must assure that they will treat the former detainee humanely, an interesting requirement given the way that the United States has treated detainees using various means of both physical and psychological torture.

Who are the lucky recipients of these detainees?  Of the 147 detainees that were transferred during the Obama Administration up to February 2016, 81 went to countries in the Middle East, Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, 47 to various nations in Europa and Asia, 13 to the Americas and 6 to the South Pacific with the aim of returning the detainees to their home nation.

Let's look at the costs for operating the Guantanamo Bay Detention Facility.  These can be broken down into two key sections:

1.) Military Commissions (i.e. trials and pre-trials): there are currently three active cases involving seven accused (pre-trial phase) and two cases in which detainees have pled guilty and are awaiting sentencing.  Once the active cases go to trial and verdicts are reached, the Department of Defense expects that there will be a very lengthy appeals process.  Currently, the annual costs for this aspect of life at Guantanamo costs American taxpayers $91 million annually, costs that are expected to continue for several years.

2.) Operating Costs: in fiscal year 2015, the cost to operate Guantanamo Bay was approximately $445 million.  Future maintenance and  construction costs for the facility are estimated at approximately $200 million plus an additional $25 million for related furnishings.  The Department of Defense estimates that recurring annual costs at Guantanamo are between $65 million and $85 million higher than a comparable U.S.-based facility.

The Department of Defense estimates that shifting the operation from Guantanamo Bay to the United States and housing 30 to 60 detainees would lower costs between $140 million and $180 million annually as compared to fiscal 2015.  Much of the savings would result from a decrease in the number of U.S. personnel required to guard and care for a smaller detainee population as well as a reduction in travel costs and operating costs if the facility was domestically located.

Obviously, there will be one-time costs associated with moving detainees from Guantanamo to the United States.  The Administration estimates that these one-time transition costs will range from between $290 million and $475 million, however, over ten years, it is estimated that there will be net savings of at least $335 million over a decade.  If Guantanamo is closes, the Department of Defense has determined that a variety of facilities currently owned by the Department itself, the Bureau of Prisons and state prison facilities could be used to house Guantanamo detainees.  They have determined that a single facility would be preferable to splitting the detainees among several facilities.

What is quite interesting is that, in June 2016, the House took direct aim at President Obama's plan to shutter Guantanamo by approving a measure that would precent the Obama Administration from using any funds to release Guantanamo detainees to any destination, a move that effectively freezes the Guantanamo population at its current level barring any future legislative changes once January 2017 rolls around.  In November 2015, Congress also took direct aim at any plans to transfer detainees to the United States by voting to prohibit the use of funds for transfer or release of individuals held at Guantanamo to the United States in the 2016 version of the National Defense Authorization Act (aka H.R. 1735) as found in section 1031:

In section 1032, Congress also prohibits the Department of Defense from using funds to modify or construct any facility in the United States or its territories to house any detainees from Guantanamo.  Section 1033 prohibits the Department of Defense from using funds to transfer any of the Guantanamo detainees to Libya, Somalia, Syria or Yemen.  Section 1034 prohibits the Department of Defense from using funds to transfer any of the Guantanamo detainees to their nations of origin or any other foreign country unless the Department provides certification to Congress that addresses specific requirements.  Ironically, Section 2035 requires the Department of Defense to submit a strategy for the detention of any current and future individuals that may be held under the Authorization for Use of Military Force.  Lastly, Section 1036 prohibits the use of funds to close the Guantanamo facility, relinquish control of the facility to Cuba or modify the 1934 treaty between the United States of America and Cuba that constructively closes Guantanamo.

H.R. 1735 pretty much tied the Obama Administration's hands when it comes to their near decade-long plan to shutter the Guantanamo Bay Detention Facility, one of the reasons why President Obama vetoed the bill on October 22, 2015.

Let's close with a quote from the Department of Defense document "Plan for Closing the Guantanamo Bay Detention Facility":

"As the President has made clear, closing the Guantanamo Bay detention facility is a national security imperative. Its continued operation weakens our national security by furthering the recruiting propaganda of violent extremists, hindering relations with key allies and partners, and draining Department of Defense resources." 

Until the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay is closed and the remaining detainees are transferred to another facility, American taxpayers can count on spending nearly half a billion dollars annually to house a very, very small and shrinking number of alleged terrorists from around the globe.   Unfortunately, in the hands of the Democrats and Republicans, this issue has become a very expensive political football.  

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