U.S. prisons could handle housing Guantanamo Bay detainees if the Cuba-based military camp were closed, but legal and logistical hurdles would have to be considered before doing so, according to a Government Accountability Office report released this week.
The report examined both Defense Department and Justice Department facilities and what factors need to be considered before moving the 166 remaining detainees. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, commissioned the report in 2008. The review was conducted from January to November 2012, and the report was released by Feinstein on Wednesday. President Barack Obama campaigned on a pledge in 2008 to close the controversial facility, where prisoners captured overseas have been held without trial on suspicion of terrorism.
A backlash in Congress to the plan to close Guantanamo led to legislation cutting off funding to transfer the prisoners. Lawmakers cited concerns that national security would be compromised if accused terrorists were brought to the United States.
“This report demonstrates that if the political will exists, we could finally close Guantanamo without imperiling our national security,” Feinstein said in a statement. “The GAO report makes clear that numerous prisons exist inside the United States — operated by both the Department of Defense and the Department of Justice — capable of holding the 166 detainees who remain at Guantanamo in an environment that meets the security requirements.”
Currently, 373 inmates charged with or convicted of terrorism-related charges are being held in 98 of the Justice Department’s Bureau of Prisons facilities. The Defense Department operates six prison facilities that are capable of holding the detainees, the report states. In both instances, however, the facilities would likely need to be modified to house the prisoners.
“To say that high-risk detainees cannot be held securely in a maximum security prison is just plain wrong,” Feinstein said. “The United States already holds 373 individuals convicted of terrorism in 98 facilities across the country. As far as I know, there hasn’t been a single security problem reported in any of these cases. This fact outweighs not only the high cost of maintaining Guantanamo — which costs more than $114 million a year — but also provides the same degree of security without the criticism of operating a military prison in an isolated location.”
But the report outlines legal and logistical challenges. The department told GAO it does not believe it has authority to hold Defense Department detainees under the Authorization for Use of Military Force resolution, which was passed by Congress in the days after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Department officials told GAO that to hold Guantanamo detainees in its prisons, it would have to consider new policies and practices for holding the detainees, protocols for ensuring safety of the detainees and the general public and also determine the amount of space needed to maintain a separation between the detainees and current inmates.
Bureau of Prisons officials highlighted the issue of overcrowding in its facilities. BOP officials said that as of August, the prison system was 38 percent overcrowded, and “finding capacity in its facilities for the Guantanamo Bay detainee population may present challenges,” the report states. For example, if many detainees had to be confined to single cells, current inmates would have to be moved, possibly leading to triple bunking among the existing population.
But if given enough resources, the officials told GAO, the detainees could be held in its facilities.
Lee Lofthus, Assistant Attorney General for Administration, wrote to GAO administrators requesting they make clear in the report that the Justice Department “does not have plans to transfer any Guantanamo Bay detainees to its facilities in the United States, and such transfer is prohibited by law.”
“The only conclusion supportable by the information provided by the department is that, generally speaking, the Bureau of Prisons and Marshals Service have the correctional expertise to safely and securely house detainees with a nexus to terrorism,” Loftus wrote in his Nov. 6 letter, which is appended to the GAO report. “However, the department has not made preparations for housing Guantanamo detainees, does not have plans for doing so, has not recently explored the issues that would need to be considered, and would require adequate lead time and considerable resources to house Guantanamo detainees.”
The GAO also said on the second page of the report that the review is “descriptive and did not include an evaluation of whether specific U.S. facilities would be suitable for holding Guantanamo Bay detainees, nor did GAO address legal factors are still being adjudicated.” It also did not provide any recommendations moving forward.
The lengthy response on this point may have to do with blow back the department and Attorney General Eric Holder received during the fight for funding Thomson Correctional Center in Thomson, Ill. A number of Republicans opposed the Justice Department’s request to redirect $165 million in department funds to buy the facility. Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), who chairs the House Appropriations subcommittee that funds the Justice Department, opposed the purchase, citing, among other things, the fact that Thomson was initially considered a possible host site for Guantanamo detainees.
However, in October, Obama directed the department to move forward with purchasing the vacant super-max prison facility, despite Republican criticism.
Today, Wolf said in a statement that the GAO report “confirms his long-held suspicion that the Obama administration is continuing to pursue the possibility of transferring terrorists from Guantanamo Bay to correctional facilities in the U.S.”
“These events should serve as a wakeup call to the American public that terrorists like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who confessed to his involvement in plotting the 9/11 attacks on the United States, could one day appear in courtrooms on American soil,” Wolf said in the statement.
Wolf cited the purchase of Thomson prison as a signal the administration may be moving toward closing Guantanamo Bay and moving its prisoners to the United States.
“I believe that Attorney General Eric Holder’s acquisition of Thomson prison – unprecedented in its violations of longstanding Executive-Legislative branch protocol – could be the first step in transferring these dangerous terrorists to the U.S.,” Wolf said. “…Transferring prisoners from Guantanamo Bay is a costly proposition both in terms of security and spending. We owe it to the victims of terrorist attacks on the U.S. to remain vigilant in our opposition to this idea or risk compromising our national security.”