President Obama's insistence that the nation's "supermax" prisons can hold terrorism suspects from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, touched off fresh Republican criticism Thursday over his order to shutter the controversial island prison.
"He's dead wrong," House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, said after Obama delivered a speech defending his plan to dismantle and reconfigure what he called an ineffective, ad hoc legal framework set up by the Bush administration after 9/11 to handle terrorism suspects.
Obama promised not to "release detainees within the United States who endanger the American people."
The federal Bureau of Prisons, which operates one such highly secured prison, says the government already has 216 convicted international terrorists and 139 domestic terrorists in custody. Of those, 33 are kept at the supermax prison in Florence, Colo., bureau spokeswoman Traci Billingsley says. Some have been held since the early 1990s. Many states also operate supermax prisons, and several federal prisons have supermax wings.
Obama did not say whether detainees might be sent to existing prisons or whether a new prison would be built just for them.
"With all due respect to the president, what we need here is not a speech, but a plan," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
McConnell said he opposes moving detainees to the mainland — either for trial or to serve prison terms. He and others alluded to warnings from FBI Director Robert Mueller that allowing detainees in U.S. prisons risks allowing them to radicalize inmates. "We can bring them here," McConnell said. "The question is: Should we? And I think, in most instances, the answer would be no."
On Wednesday, the Senate by a 90-6 vote rejected Obama's request for $80 million to close the Guantanamo prison, citing his lack of a plan for what to do with the detainees. Obama said lawyers are reviewing the status of the 240 detainees still being held to determine whether they should be tried in federal court or before a military tribunal, released overseas or held without trial.
"I knew when I ordered Guantanamo closed that it would be difficult," he said.
He faces a self-imposed end-of-the-year deadline to close the prison, which he called a "mess" and a "misguided experiment" that has served as a rallying cry for terrorists worldwide. He noted that more than 500 detainees were transferred to other nations during the Bush administration and only three were convicted.
In a speech of his own Thursday, former vice president Dick Cheney said Obama's decision to close Guantanamo was made with "little deliberation and no plan."
Cheney also criticized Obama's order to ban what the president has called the "torture" of terrorism suspects by CIA and military interrogators. He derided "contrived indignation and phony moralizing" about what Cheney said were harsh techniques that saved many lives.
Obama's speech came hours after the Justice Department announced it would send a senior al-Qaeda suspect now held at Guantanamo Bay to New York City for trial in criminal court.