House Committee Votes to Waste Taxpayer $$, Undermine U.S. National Security

It’s not that Congress doesn’t work hard enough. It’s that too many members work way too hard to undermine the goals of U.S. national security and fiscal prudence.

That’s what happened last night, when House Armed Services Committee members labored long into the night to hash out the annual National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA. Once again, echoing the last 6 years, the committee debated Republican provisions designed to prevent President Obama from closing the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, despite the recognition by national security experts across the political spectrum that the prison should be closed.

The House bill put forward by committee Chair Mac Thornberry (R-TX) would maintain the ban on all transfers to the United States of all Guantanamo detainees for any purpose, including medical care, trial, or imprisonment. But under a new provision, it would also ban transfers to any place deemed a “combat zone” for tax purposes – a label so broad as to include U.S. allies such as Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Jordan, which have all successfully resettled Guantanamo detainees. It would reinstate onerous and unnecessary transfer requirements that make it difficult if not impossible to transfer even detainees who have been determined not to pose a threat to the United States by both the Bush and Obama administrations and by unanimous agreement of U.S. national security and intelligence agencies.

Other parts of the bill would withhold 25% of defense department funding until the administration submits to Congress a stack of documents related to the 2014 transfer to Qatar of five Guantanamo detainees in exchange for the release of U.S. Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl.

If it all sounds like politics as usual, that’s because it is. National security, and the Guantanamo Bay detention facility in particular, have become huge political footballs, with a string of Republican lawmakers intent on thwarting the president’s legitimate efforts even though many prominent Republicans, such as Senator John McCain and former President George W. Bush himself, have advocated closing it.

Fortunately, there are lawmakers who actually value national security and sound fiscal policy (it costs more than $400 million a year to run the detention center — more than $3 million per year for each of the 122 remaining detainees.) Last night (actually early this morning, around 1:30 a.m.), Rep. Adam Smith (D-CA) proposed a sensible amendment that would have stripped away the most onerous and wasteful of the Guantanamo-related provisions.

But that amendment failed, after Republican lawmakers such as Thornberry (R-TX), Randy Forbes (R-VA), Jackie Walorski (R-IN) and Brad Wenstrup (R-OH) argued in opposition. Rep. Walorski attacked Smith’s amendment by once again trotting out the totally misleading 35% “recidivism rate” of Guantanamo detainees. Meanwhile, the Pentagon’s own numbers indicate that only about six percent of detainees released under President Obama are even suspected of having engaged in any sort of support for terrorism subsequent to their release — this is a pretty low rate given that most were held for more than a decade without charge or trial. Although the rate was much higher during the Bush administration – around 33% — as these lawmakers well know, President Obama instituted a rigorous review of all Guantanamo detainees when he took office, and put in place a new system for determining whether or not they remain a threat.

Indeed, one of the President’s first acts, after declaring his intention to shutter the Guantanamo prison in 2009, was to create an intensive interagency review process to evaluate the risk posed by each detainee. Instead of following the previous administration’s lead, he instituted a system that involved painstaking review by every national security and intelligence agency — the Department of Defense, Office of the Director of National Intelligence, Central Intelligence Agency, Joint Chiefs of Staff, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Justice, and State Department. Any decision to clear a Guantanamo detainee for transfer requires the unanimous agreement of all of these agencies. On top of this, the Secretary of Defense must then determine that each individual transfer is in the national security interest of the United States, and that any risks the person might pose can be substantially mitigated.

The resulting rate of so-called “recidivism” (since they were never tried or convicted of crimes, the commonly-used term is a misnomer) is much lower than what we see from any ordinary U.S. prison. That’s in part because many of them were never criminals to begin with, but it’s also because the government takes extraordinary measures to work with countries that receive former Guantanamo detainees to prevent any threatening conduct. Although we’d all like guarantees that no one will ever commit a crime in the future, that’s impossible, unless we’re willing to imprison everyone — lawmakers included. As former Justice Department counsel to the Assistant Attorney General for National Security Jennifer Daskal points out, the risk from released Guantanamo detainees “is nothing compared to the threat we face from thousands of nameless others, many of whom continue to add to their rank by pointing to Guantánamo as a symbol of what to hate about America.”

Ultimately, the risk presented by transferring Guantanamo detainees is minimal compared to the costs of keeping Guantanamo open. As retired Major General William Nash has said: “Keeping someone in prison that we do not have any reason to do so … does [increase risk to American troops], because it gives al Qaeda propaganda tools used to fill their coffers with new recruits. We must cease focusing on recidivism numbers that are flimsy at best, and focus on ways to disincentivize terror recruiting.” Admiral Dennis Blair, former Director of National Intelligence, has similarly called the Guantanamo prison “a damaging symbol to the world” and “a rallying cry for terrorist recruitment,” adding that “closing it is important for our national security.”

Now if only our lawmakers would listen. The NDAA goes to the full House for a vote in mid-May.

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Published on April 30, 2015

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