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July 07, 2016

First Commanding Officer of Guantanamo Detention Center Urges Congress to Close Facility

Washington, D.C.—Major General Michael R. Lehnert, USMC (Ret.) today urged members of Congress to renew their efforts to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The call came in a statement for the record submitted to the House Foreign Affairs Committee ahead of a hearing examining issues related to the transfer of Guantanamo detainees. 

“We can win the fight against terrorism and religious extremism, but only if we adhere to our American values,” wrote Gen. Lehnert, the first commanding officer at Guantanamo Bay. “Guantanamo’s continued existence hurts us in our prosecution of the fight against terrorists.” 

Today’s hearing occurred one month after the Senate passed its version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). The bill includes language that would make it nearly impossible for President Obama to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, despite the fact that national security leaders from across the political spectrum have urged the president and Congress to make shuttering this facility a top priority. Both the Senate and House versions of the NDAA would extend unnecessary bans on transferring detainees to the United States until after President Obama leaves office. The bills also extend country-specific transfer bans, with the Senate version expanding the number of prohibited locations. Both bills include cumbersome overseas transfer restrictions that make it more difficult, but not impossible, for the administration to transfer detainees. Human Rights First has urged President Obama to veto the defense authorization bill if the final version contains these provisions.

Next week the Senate is expected to begin debate on its version of the Department of Defense (DOD) Appropriations Bill for Fiscal Year 2017 (FY17). The House’s DOD Appropriations bill, contains provisions that make it extremely difficult to take any steps towards closing the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay. One provision blocks funding for the office of the Special Envoy to Close Guantanamo at the Departments of Defense, which is responsible for arranging diplomatic agreements and security assurances for detainee transfers to other countries. The bill also prevents funds from being used to survey or review potential locations in the United States to house Guantanamo detainees. 

Earlier this year, the Pentagon released the administration’s plan for closing Guantanamo, which includes the transfer of detainees at Guantanamo who have been cleared for transfer by defense, intelligence, and law enforcement agencies. It also mandates expedited review, pursuant to administrative Periodic Review Board (PRB) hearings, of the remaining detainees who are not facing trial to determine if they can be cleared for transfer. The remaining detainees who will not be transferred in the near term—a number unlikely to exceed 60— would be relocated to one of 13 stateside detention facilities, pending Congressional approval. This would result in annual operating savings of up to $85 million compared to the cost of detention operations at Guantanamo. There are currently 79 detainees held at Guantanamo, which costs approximately $445 million per year to operate, about $5.5 million per detainee. Twenty-nine detainees have been unanimously cleared for transfer by six national security and intelligence agencies.

Thirty-six retired generals and admirals of the U.S. Armed Forces sent a letter to the chairmen and ranking members of the Senate and House Armed Services Committees, urging them to carefully consider the Obama Administration’s plan to close Guantanamo, and to work with the president to shutter the detention facility. “Closing Guantanamo will not be easy, but it is the right thing to do, and we call on you to work together to accomplish it. We take heart that our nation has elected people who will exercise their conscientious judgment, but who will not allow politics to obscure courage,” wrote the generals and admirals.

“Terrorists want to make us live in fear. They want to change who we are as a people,” wrote General Lehnert. “As long as Guantanamo continues, they are winning, and we are playing into their hands.”

 For more information or to speak with Gen. Lehnert , contact Corinne Duffy at DuffyC@humanrightsfirst.org or 202-370-3319.