More Guantánamo Releases Planned Despite Hostility in Congress

3.12.14

"President and Congress: Close Guantanamo" - a banner from the protest calling for the closure of Guantanamo outside the White House on January 11, 2012, the 10th anniversary of the opening of the prison.I wrote the following article for the “Close Guantánamo” website, which I established in January 2012 with US attorney Tom Wilner. Please join us — just an email address is required to be counted amongst those opposed to the ongoing existence of Guantánamo, and to receive updates of our activities by email.

In a hopeful sign of ongoing progress on Guantánamo, following the recent release of six prisoners, Julian Barnes of the Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday that defense and congressional officials had told him that the Pentagon was “preparing to transfer additional detainees” from Guantánamo “in the coming weeks.”

After four Yemenis and a Tunisian were given new homes in Georgia and Slovakia, and a Saudi was repatriated, defense officials “said there would be more transfers in December, but declined to detail their numbers or nationalities.”

Laura Pitter, the senior national security counsel for Human Rights Watch, said in response, “There does seem to be a renewed effort to make the transfers happen,” which, she added, seems to indicate a desire on the president’s part to continue working towards closing the prison, as he promised when he took office in January 2009, before Republicans raised obstacles that he has, in general, not wished to spend political will overcoming.

There is clearly a flurry of activity on Guantánamo right now, because Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon (R-Calif.), the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and a staunch supporter of Guantánamo, recently complained, at a congressional hearing, about “an increase in the number of notifications by the administration to lawmakers on coming Guantánamo transfers.”

For prisoners to be released from Guantánamo, passages inserted by lawmakers into the National Defense Authorization Act over the last few years have stipulated that the defense secretary must certify to Congress that anyone to be released will not pose a significant threat to US national security.

Reports in September indicated that Chuck Hagel, the defense secretary, had been dragging his heels when it came to approving prisoners for release. In May, speaking of the certification process, he said, “My name is going on that document. That’s a big responsibility.”

The Wall Street Journal‘s take on this was that administration officials “privately complained that Mr. Hagel [had] moved too slowly to certify detainees for release,” whereas Hagel’s aides said he was “committed to thorough reviews before releases.”

Last week, Chuck Hagel announced his resignation as defense secretary, apparently under pressure from the White House — for reasons that, it seems, involve the unrelated desire of the White House to step up military action against ISIS/ISIL in the Middle East in spite of Hagel’s reticence.

The Wall Street Journal noted that officials told them that senior White House officials “are growing impatient as the clock ticks down on the Obama administration and the president’s promise of closing Guantánamo remains unfulfilled,” despite an increase in the release of prisoners since a major speech on national security issues last May — and a promise to resume releasing prisoners that we are monitoring here, at the Gitmo Clock website.

However, despite Hagel’s pending departure, defense officials said that he “would continue to review and approve proposals to transfer detainees out of the prison.”

“He will continue apace,” one particular defense official said, adding, “It will be business as usual.”

According to the New York Times, Hagel notified Congress that he had “approved 11 other detainee transfers,” with six of those expected to be to Uruguay. Earlier this year, the outgoing president, José Mujica, agreed to take six men — apparently  four Syrians, a stateless Palestinian and a Tunisian — but their arrival was delayed because of the presidential election. That has now ended favourably, with the election of another leftist president, albeit one less radical than José Mujica.

It is not known what Hagel’s as yet unknown successor will make of Guantánamo, of course, but the Wall Street Journal suggested it “could mean that Pentagon reviews of transfers must start anew.” However, I would find that a little surprising.

Of greater concern, I think, is what Congress will do. The day before yesterday, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told reporters that a deal between House and Senate negotiators on passages relating to Guantánamo in the annual National Defense Authorization Act had led to a final bill that “omits a provision giving the president the authority to transfer [prisoners] to the United States if Congress signs off on a comprehensive plan to close the prison,” as the Associated Press described it.

In May, the Senate Armed Services Committee had come up with a plan that Sen. Levin hailed at the time as a path to close Guantánamo,” with a provision allowing prisoners to be sent to a facility on US soil “for detention, trial and incarceration, subject to stringent security measures and legal protections, once the president has submitted a plan to Congress for closing Guantánamo and Congress has had an opportunity to vote to disapprove that plan under expedited procedures.”

That same month, however, the version of the bill passed by the House of Representatives maintained the prohibition on the transfer of prisoners to the US mainland, and with Democrats now in a minority in the Senate, it is unsurprising — though still bitterly disappointing — that Sen. Levin’s plan failed.

It remains to be seen what wording will prevail in the final version of the bill to be passed by the House and then the Senate in the near future, but it is clear that it will not make the promise to close Guantánamo any easier.

As the Wall Street Journal noted, however, those calling for the closure of Guantánamo point out that, “even in the face of a Republican Congress, there are some points of leverage for the Obama administration” — for example, the extraordinary cost of running the prison. Human rights advocates, the newspaper stated, “note that as the number declines, the per-inmate cost rises, increasing pressure to close the prison.” As Laura Pitter of Human Rights Watch explained, it currently costs around $3 million a year per prisoner to hold the 142 men still held, compared to a fraction of that cost on the US mainland — plus, of course, 73 of these men have been approved for transfer, and yet are still being held, at a cost of nearly $220 million a year.

Getting these men out must remain a priority, and if Congress maintains its opposition to the transfer of the other men to the US mainland so that Guantánamo can be closed, then President Obama must come up with some other options. It is imperative that he fulfills his promise before leaving office.

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer and film-maker. He is the co-founder of the “Close Guantánamo” campaign, the director of “We Stand With Shaker,” calling for the immediate release from Guantánamo of Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here — or here for the US).

To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to Andy’s RSS feed — and he can also be found on Facebook (and here), Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. Also see the six-part definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, and “The Complete Guantánamo Files,” an ongoing, 70-part, million-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011. Also see the definitive Guantánamo habeas list, the full military commissions list, and the chronological list of all Andy’s articles.

Please also consider joining the “Close Guantánamo” campaign, and, if you appreciate Andy’s work, feel free to make a donation.

5 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    On Facebook, when my friend Jan Strain posted this, she wrote:

    From my friend, Andy Worthington, historian, journalist, author, film maker, photographer, musician (he sings too!) and all around mensch.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Jan! Me singing here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tWnfLn5qdT8

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Jan Strain wrote:

    And you do sing so well!

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    🙂

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Check out The Hill for an update, in which White House press secretary Josh Earnest “hints Obama won’t veto defense bill over Guantanamo,” as the heading of the article explains, slightly unhelpfully. No one expects Obama to veto the NDAA because the Republican majority in Congress is trying to prevent him from making progress on releasing prisoners and closing Guantanamo; the question, in particular, is what Obama will do without Congressional approval – and what activists can do too. Obama has executive options he needs to think about, and he – and we – can try to put pressure on John McCain as the new chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee after Carl Levin – sadly – resigns.

    From the article:

    Earnest said the administration anticipated the final bill would include a number of “disappointing” provisions, including limits on the president’s ability to close Guantanamo Bay.

    “That’s something that we have been, frankly, pretty critical of in the past,” Earnest said. “If it’s included in there, again, it’s something we’ll be critical of again.”

    Pressed on whether the president would veto the legislation — as he has threatened, but ultimately declined to do in the past — Earnest sidestepped the question.

    “Well, we’re going to evaluate the whole package,” he said, acknowledging that “in the past, we have gone ahead and signed legislation that included this language.”

    See: http://thehill.com/policy/defense/225736-wh-hints-obama-wont-veto-defense-funding-bill-over-guantanamo

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo, co-director, We Stand With Shaker. Also, singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers) and photographer.
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