WASHINGTON -- The annual price tag for holding prisoners at Guantanamo Bay is nearing $4 million per inmate, but Congress advanced a defense bill early Thursday that again prevents President Barack Obama from closing the notorious facility.
In the early morning during work on the massive National Defense Authorization Act of 2016, the House Armed Services Committee voted down an amendment that would have freed the White House to begin dispersing the prisoners held at Gitmo, about half of whom have been deemed by the military and intelligence community to pose no threat to the United States.
The amendment had been offered by the top Democrat on the committee, Rep. Adam Smith (Wash.), who has tried for years to close the expensive facility, estimated to be the costliest in the world.
“There are better places to hold people who need to be held in Guantanamo in a far more cost-effective manner, and I still believe it is in the best national security interests of our country to close Guantanamo,” Smith said.
Secure lockups in the United States cost around $70,000 a year per inmate.
But Republicans on the committee argued the threat raised by keeping terrorism suspects in the United States would be too great, and that regardless of the cost, it was better to hold them outside the country.
“I have heard arguments like, ‘We can keep ‘em cheaper here, we have prisons that can hold them,’ and that’s all true, but one of the things you’ve to remember [is] if these terrorists come into your community, you have put a target on every business there, every school division there, and everything else,” said Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Va.). “If you think they're recruiting tool in Guantanamo Bay, imagine what they’re gonna be if they come to a theater near you.”
And Rep. Brad Wenstrup (R-Ohio), who served as an Army combat surgeon and chief of surgery at the Abu Ghraib Prison Hospital in Iraq, argued that Gitmo is a relatively nice place to keep prisoners.
“Quite honestly, if you compare Guantanamo to other places, to how our enemy treats any of us, it’s a country club down there by comparison,” Wenstrup said.
Smith, however, didn’t see the point in keeping the prisoners offshore, noting that 300 convicted terrorists are already imprisoned in the United States.
“If the United States of America cannot safely detain dangerous people, we’re in a whole lot of trouble, Guantanamo or no Guantanamo,” Smith said.
There are 122 prisoners still held at Guantanamo, which costs $454 million to run annually. Of the remaining inmates, 57 have been cleared for release, and 32 are designated for indefinite detention without charges or trial.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story described Wenstrup as a former military guard. In fact, he was an Army combat surgeon and chief of surgery at the Abu Ghraib Prison Hospital.