Congress, Obama Must Do More to Close Guantanamo
By Carolyn Tackett
This year, like others, Congress is attaching burdensome Gitmo-related provisions to the fiscal year 2016 Department of Defense spending and authorization bills. President Obama is threatening to veto them in part because they could prevent him from closing the prison.
Both the House and Senate versions of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) and Department of Defense Appropriations Act would prevent the administration from transferring detainees into the United States—even to prosecute them in federal courts, which are much more effective at prosecuting terrorism than Gitmo’s military commissions. The bills would also reinstate onerous and unnecessary pre-2014 certification requirements on detainee transfers to foreign countries, despite the drop in recidivism rates achieved through the administration’s robust review process.
The Senate NDAA would allow the administration to transfer detainees to foreign countries without the pre-2014 restrictions and to the United States for detention or trial, but only if the president submits a plan for closing the prison and Congress approves it—highly unlikely due to strong Republican opposition Guantanamo’s closure.
The House NDAA includes a blanket ban on transfers to Yemen and on transfers of 102 of the remaining 116 detainees who were "referred for prosecution," "approved for detention," or "approved for conditional detention" by the 2010 Guantanamo Detainee Review Task Force. It would also bar the administration from transferring detainees to areas defined as “combat zones” by the IRS—definitions created not to determine current threat levels but merely to provide tax exemptions to service members in areas where “U.S. Armed Forces are engaging or have engaged in combat.” This covers countries like Albania and Bosnia and Herzegovina that have successfully resettled Gitmo detainees and where hostilities have long subsided.
Closing the prison at Guantanamo is an important step toward restoring America’s position as a global leader on human rights. A broad consensus of national security experts agree closing the facility is also critical to national security. It has consistently served as propaganda for terrorist organizations such as al Qaeda and the Islamic State and complicates counterterrorism cooperation with key allies.
The prison is not only unjust and harmful to U.S. national security—it’s expensive.
At $3 million per detainee annually, failing to close Guantanamo is just plain irresponsible. Members of Congress should support efforts to transfer the 51 cleared detainees as soon as possible.
President Obama, for his part, should follow through with his threats to veto any legislation that hampers his effort to fulfill his promise to close the prison.
Even with the restrictions imposed by Congress, there is still more the administration could be doing. Six detainees were transferred to Oman last week—the first transfer in six months. While that was a step in the right direction, it didn’t go far enough, especially considering the detainees were all unanimously cleared for transfer back in 2010 following an intensive review by an inter-agency task force representing the Departments of Justice, Defense, State, and Homeland Security, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The Obama Administration must pick up the pace of these transfers and commit the necessary resources to complete hearings in front of the Periodic Review Board (PRB), which is responsible for determining if detainees are eligible for transfer. These proceedings started more than two years behind schedule and have since moved at a snail’s pace, even as the president has said expediting PRB hearings is a key part of his plan to close the prison.
Detainees assigned to indefinite detention or referred for prosecution are eligible for PRB review. So far, there have been only 15 hearings for 14 detainees. The board will hold its first hearing in over two months on Tuesday. The Defense Department has yet to release its final determination for Abdul Shalabi, who had a full review back in April. Four other detainees have since been notified they will be given hearings, but none have been scheduled. The remaining 49 eligible detainees have been given no indication of when their files will be reviewed.
President Obama needs to live up to his commitments and do what it takes to move the PRB hearings forward. Both Congress and the administration should take the necessary steps to close the expensive, dangerous, and shameful prison.