Congress challenges Obama on Guantanamo Bay closure promise

The defense policy bill approved by the US House Armed Services Committee includes provisions which will prevent the closure of controversial Guantanamo Bay prison camp

Photo by: Shane T. McCoy, U.S. Navy
Photo by: Shane T. McCoy, U.S. Navy

Updated Jul 28, 2015

US President Barack Obama had promised to shut down Guantanamo Bay prison camp in Cuba by signing an executive order in 2009, however this seems increasingly unlikely in the face of challenges from a Republican-controlled Congress pushing to use the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) to prevent him from doing so.

The United States House Armed Services Committee (HASC) “marked up” (considered) the $612B defense policy bill on April 29 and passed the NDAA draft early in the morning of April 30 by a 60-2 vote.

The bill opposes Obama’s policies on Guantanamo Bay, Ukraine and Iraq.

The House is expected to consider the bill on the floor on May 12, while the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) will begin its full committee markup on May 13.

Lawmakers are working towards a Sept. 30 deadline for the final bill, by the end of the current fiscal year.

The NDAA summary published by the HASC discusses the committee’s reluctance to transfer Guantanamo detainees to the US as well as other countries willing to accept them.

“Detainee transfers should occur only when US security can be assured, and not to meet an arbitrary campaign promise,” the document reads. “Transfers may take place only when the Secretary of Defense can certify that the foreign country to which the detainee is being transferred will maintain control over the detainee and ensure the detainee cannot threaten the United States and re engage in terrorist activity.”

The NDAA is a US federal law specifying budget and expenditures of the US Department of Defense and each year’s act also includes other provisions. For example, the 2016 draft reinstates a 2013 provision and “rescinds the President’s authority to unilaterally transfer detainees.”

In a statement to Defense One on May 4, White House spokeswoman Jen Friedman said “This administration has repeatedly objected to statutory restrictions that impede our ability to responsibly close [Guantanamo Bay] detention facility and pursue appropriate options for the remaining detainees.”

The legislation retains existing restrictions while adding new ones, such as prohibiting the transfer of detainees to a “combat zone”, which effectively excludes countries - such as Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Jordan and Saudi Arabia - that have previously accepted detainees that have been released from Guantanamo.

There are currently 122 remaining detainees in Guantanamo, down from 242 when Obama took office. Of these 122, 57 are cleared for transfer but are still awaiting further notice. Most of the cleared men are from Yemen, currently a country in chaos which they cannot return to. The US is off-limits too, as outlined in a law passed by Congress that prevents any Guantanamo detainee to set foot on US soil.

The measures included in the NDAA draft would preserve the current status of Guantanamo Bay. The detention center, which was originally leased from Cuba as a naval refueling base, cannot give up its location either, since the lease which Cuba wants to cancel may not be cancelled without the agreement of both parties involved and the NDAA draft bans the US from doing so.

TRTWorld and agencies