Obama Says He Should Have Closed Guantanamo on Day 1 -- He Still Can

03/19/2015 02:55 pm ET | Updated May 19, 2015

Asked by a seventh-grade student from the Citizens Leadership Academy in Cleveland yesterday what advice he would give himself if he could go back to his first day in office, President Obama responded, "I think I would have closed Guantanamo on the first day." That got a round of applause.

He continued:

I didn't because at that time, as you'll recall, we had a bipartisan agreement that it should be closed; my Republican opponent had also said it should have been closed. And I thought that we had enough consensus there that we could do it in a more deliberate fashion. But the politics of it got tough and people got scared by the rhetoric around it. And once that set in, then the path of least resistance was just to leave it open, even though it's not who we are as a country. It is used by terrorists around the world to help recruit jihadists. So instead, we've had to just chip away at it, year after year after year. But I think in that first couple of weeks we could have done it quicker.

Fair enough. President Obama is right that the bipartisan consensus that Guantanamo should be closed quickly dissolved as soon as he made it a centerpiece of his agenda. Congress has since barred transferring any of the men indefinitely detained at the offshore U.S. prison in Cuba to the United States for trial or detention. But that's hardly the end of the story. President Obama can still make huge strides toward closing Guantanamo, even without Congress' help. Here's how.

While Obama has slowly stepped up transferring detainees already cleared by a multi-agency process for release from Guantanamo to other countries, his administration has dragged its feet on reviewing the 51 detainees who aren't yet cleared, out of the remaining 122. It's unconscionable that a process created by executive order in 2011 has reviewed the cases of only 13 detainees so far. When he created the Periodic Review Boards, President Obama said he intended for the cases of all detainees at Guantanamo to be reviewed within one year. Four years later, that still hasn't happened.

Of the 13 reviewed, eight have been cleared for transfer so far. (One case hasn't yet been decided.) Assuming a similar 66 percent of detainees are cleared by the reviews going forward, that would lead to 34 more detainees cleared for transfer and, after the cleared men's actual transfer, leave only 32 men imprisoned at Guantanamo -- including those serving military commission sentences. Surely at some point even Congress would decide it no longer makes sense to keep an entire prison, and its own separate dysfunctional quasi-justice system, open for only 32 people, and would allow their transfer to the United States for trial or continued imprisonment, if warranted. As it is, the Guantanamo detention center has already cost U.S. taxpayers more than $5 billion; the ongoing cost per detainee is more than $3 million per year and will only rise as more detainees are transferred. Meanwhile, the annual cost of detaining a terrorist at a maximum security prison in the United States is $34,000. Congress is now considering where to cut costs from the defense budget; closing Guantanamo is an easy place to start.

It's great that the president now sees he should have closed the notorious Guantanamo prison on Day 1. As he said yesterday, it continues to act as a powerful propoganda tool for terrorist recruitment -- a point national security experts, including some who helped created it, have been pointing out for years. But it's not too late for President Obama to act and let Guantanamo's closure stand as an important part of his legacy.

The last years of his historic presidency is not the time to "take the path of least resistance." As even seventh graders at the Citizens Leadership Academy surely know, now is the time to take a stand.