Congress vs. National Security Experts: Guantanamo Edition

Last Friday, the House passed its version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for the fiscal year 2016. Since 2009, the NDAA has included provisions that restrict transfers out of Guantanamo—both to the United States and overseas. This year is no different.

The House NDAA reverts back to old Guantanamo transfer restrictions, which are so onerous it would be nearly impossible to transfer any detainees out of the prison—even the 57 who national security and intelligence agencies unanimously found do not pose a threat to the United States.

The bill also bans transfers to areas the IRS defines as “combat zones” (for the purpose of providing tax exemptions for troops). These are places where troops “are engaging or have engaged in combat” and include countries like Albania and Bosnia and Herzegovina, which have successfully resettled Guantanamo detainees and where war has long since ended.

Yet this didn’t stop Representative Mac Thornberry (R-TX) from referring to all IRS “combat zone” countries as “war zones” on the House floor last Thursday night.

It’s actually astounding how many patently false statements about the detention facility were made by opponents of closing Guantanamo on the House floor.

The most glaring falsehood bandied about was that Guantanamo “protects our national security.” Representative Jackie Walorski (R-IN) declared these exact words when she introduced her amendment that would ban the transfer of 102 out of the 122 detainees in the prison. Representatives Brad Wenstrup (R-OH), Vicky Hartzler (R-MO), Ryan Zinke (R-MT), and Mike Coffman (R-CO) made similar statements.

Coffman even used quotation marks to describe all current Guantanamo detainees as the “worst of the worst.” Who knows who he was actually quoting. He certainly didn’t say. In fact, no representatives who opposed Guantanamo’s closure presented actual evidence from national security experts to support their claims.

Why? Because national security experts don’t say this. They say that to protect our national security we need to close Guantanamo.

Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, CIA Director John O. Brennan, former Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair, and former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen are just a few of the national security leaders who call for the prison’s closure. President George W. Bush has stated his desire to close it as well.

Representative Adam Smith (D-WA) introduced an amendment with a principled approach to close the prison by the end of 2017. Smith pointed to the “endless string of military leaders” who agree that the prison makes us less safe and should be shuttered.

Last week, Major General Michael Lehnert (Retired), who was tasked with constructing and operating the detention facility in 2002, sent a letter to House members, encouraging them to vote against the Walorski amendment and in favor of the Smith amendment.

Forty-two retired military leaders called Guantanamo “a critical national security issue,” noting that “[v]iolent extremists use it as a recruiting tool,” and that it “complicates our diplomacy with allies, including with regard to counter-terrorism operations.” Just last week, at the U.N. Universal Periodic Review of the United States, ten countries—including NATO members France, Germany, Iceland, and Spain—called for the prison’s closure. American diplomats have reported considerable pushback over Guantanamo from allies who will not share intelligence with us or extradite suspects to the United States due to concerns about the prison and the problematic Guantanamo military commissions.

But last week the empty rhetoric won out. The Walorski amendment passed, Smith’s was defeated, and the House NDAA now includes the most draconian Guantanamo transfer restrictions since the prison was opened. If passed into law, these provisions would make it impossible to close Guantanamo and ultimately would make us less safe.

If anything resembling this bill ends up on President Obama’s desk, he should veto it. It’s time to listen to our national security experts and close Guantanamo.


Published on May 21, 2015


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