Since Congress began the push for austerity in 2011, it has slashed spending on domestic and defense programs, brought the United States to the brink of default, and shut down the federal government. At the same time, my new report released on Tuesday has found that Congress spent $1.42 billion on Guantanamo when all Guantanamo detainees could have been held in existing U.S. prisons for a cost of $29.9 million.
The current Senate version of the National Defense Authorization Act for 2014 would likely save U.S. taxpayers billions by easing the restrictions on transferring detainees out of Guantanamo. The portion of this legislation that would make it easier to move out those already cleared for transfer would save almost $2 billion in the next budget cycle.
Yemeni nationals currently make up a majority of the remaining detainees at Guantanamo (88 of 164). Of those 88, 56 have been cleared for transfer but remain at the prison out of concerns about the Yemeni government’s capacity to securely detain them once transferred. My calculations estimate the annual cost of keeping those 56 at Guantanamo at $131 million.
One option being considered to solve this problem is building a new facility in Yemen specifically to house returning Guantanamo detainees, and the Obama administration is seeking donations from other countries to cover the construction costs. But the time involved in getting other countries to agree to fund it will likely end up costing the United States taxpayers more money. It’s not cheap to build such a detention center, but the total cost to build all new facilities at Guantanamo for all detainees over its 12-year life is only $153 million. It would be cost effective for the United States to fund the construction of a new facility in Yemen to house returned Guantanamo detainees in its entirety and get the 56 Yeminis out of Guantanamo as quickly as possible.
Detention operations are not the only money pit at Guantanamo. The military commissions, first envisioned as an efficient means of convicting Guantanamo detainees, has turned into a complete waste of money. When Attorney General Eric Holder tried to bring 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed to New York City for trial in 2009, an absurd $200 million security plan helped derail the move. Little did we know that even at that inflated cost, such a trial would have been a bargain compared to the fiasco at Guantanamo. So far, the military commissions have cost $582.1 million and the trial of the 9/11 conspirators is at least a year away.
One former Guantanamo detainee has been prosecuted in New York, however. Ahmed Ghailani, who was deemed so dangerous that he was held in a CIA secret prison for several years before even getting to Guantanamo, was convicted in 2010 and is now serving a life sentence at the Supermax prison in Florence, Colorado. There were no additional costs associated with Ghailani’s trial or incarceration than for the typical high security inmate. The annual cost of holding a prisoner at the Supermax is $79,000. At Guantanamo, that number is $2.7 million.
The average age of the remaining Guantanamo detainees is 39. Life sentences at Guantanamo for these detainees will cost U.S. taxpayers tens of billions of dollars. Other safe, secure, and cheaper options exist than the most expensive prison in the world. It is time for Congress to get behind the effort to close Guantanamo.
Ken Gude is a Senior Fellow with the National Security Team at the Center for American Progress.