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In His State of the Union Address, Obama Should Double Down on Closing Guantanamo

Tonight, President Obama should reaffirm his commitment to shuttering Guantanamo forever and present a plan to Congress that can gain bipartisan support.
Photo by Michael Holzworth

Tonight, President Barack Obama will deliver his State of the Union address to the American people. He will detail challenges and successes of the past year and outline his objectives for the remainder of his term. While he will rightly tell us that the state of our union is strong, our union is threatened and imperfect whenever we ignore the Constitution and the rule of law — and such is the case with the US detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

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Thirteen years ago this month, I went to Guantanamo to oversee the construction of that detention facility. Even though operational necessity dictated the need for a place outside of Afghanistan to hold those captured during the conflict, few if any of our policy makers envisioned that the facility would remain open for more than a decade. In that time, it has become a rallying point for those who would do the nation harm and challenge our reputation.

Tonight as the president speaks, I hope he renews his commitment to shuttering the facility forever.

Leaders from all over the political spectrum have acknowledged that we should close Guantanamo. In 2006, President George W. Bush said, "I would very much like to end Guantanamo." In the years since, his sentiments have been publicly shared by Senator John McCain, former Secretary of State Colin Powell, former CIA Director David Petraeus, former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and many others. I am proud to be among dozens of retired military leaders who continue to work to close the facility because we know from experience that its existence threatens our national security.

VICE News interviews a former Guantanamo guard who believes three men were murdered at the facility. Watch it here.

Despite the ever-growing consensus among some of our nation's finest national security experts, there are those who continue to express concern that releasing Guantanamo detainees poses a security threat. While this is a legitimate concern, national security is about weighing risks, and the risk of keeping the facility open is greater than the risk incurred by either prudently releasing detainees already cleared by a disciplined interagency process, or moving those who cannot be released to federal prisons within the United States where they can be tried in federal courts.

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Because of its remote location, Guantanamo is extraordinarily expensive — and that cost is borne by US taxpayers. The annual cost to hold one Guantanamo detainee now stands at $3,345,061, and that includes those who have been approved for release for years. By comparison, the annual cost to hold a prisoner in the most expensive supermax facility in the United States is about $78,000.

Yes, a few detainees transferred to other countries will return to the fight. Years ago, the vetting process was not nearly as mature as it is today — but even of those released from Guantanamo in its early years, only about 17 percent are confirmed to have fought again. And of the 107 men confirmed to have re-engaged, 48 are either dead or in custody.

The risk of releasing detainees is manageable; we have the best military in the world to hunt down those who foolishly decide to return to the fight.

Today, by the Director of National Intelligence's estimates, only 7 of the 115 detainees released by Obama are suspected or confirmed of reengaging in terrorist or insurgent activity. The risk of releasing detainees is manageable; we have the best military in the world to hunt down those who foolishly decide to return to the fight. But as long as we keep Guantanamo open, the opportunity for jihadists to use it to reinforce their pernicious narrative and recruit thousands of unidentified fighters continues.

Of the 779 detainees we incarcerated at Guantanamo since 2002, the United States transferred, repatriated, or resettled about 605 without action, but at a huge cost to our nation in reputation and dollars. That we simply returned them to their country of origin or elsewhere reflects the fact that we did a poor initial job of identifying those who should be sent to Guantanamo, and damaged our reputation as a nation of laws and due process.

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Obama transferred 28 prisoners last year, 15 of them in December. So far in 2015, he has transferred five additional men, leaving 122 detainees at Guantanamo. Fifty-four of them have been cleared by US intelligence and security agencies, and the president finish moving them by the end of the year. Congress should immediately give up attempts to block this progress; each delay in closing Guantanamo threatens our national security.

Evil Sponge Bob and Satan: Inside a Guantanamo Bay prison riot. Read more here.

Detainees who are not cleared for release should be moved to the United States for trial or detention. This will require a bi-partisan effort, but there are thoughtful people on both sides of the aisle who recognize that keeping Guantanamo open aids those who would do our nation harm.

During tonight's State of the Union, I urge the president to double down on fulfilling his executive order pledge to close Guantanamo forever, provide a plan for doing so to Congress to gain bipartisan support, and to recognize that our nation is strongest and most secure when it lives by those principles embodied in our Constitution.

Retired Major General Michael Lehnert, USMC, was the first commander of the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Photo via DVIDS