Obama Should Veto NDAA that Limits Ability to Close Guantanamo
Washington, D.C.—Following today’s passage in the Senate of the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), Human Rights First urges President Obama to veto the bill if its final version includes provisions that would make it impossible to close Guantanamo by the end of his term in office. The NDAA will now go to conference where representatives will reconcile any differences in the House and Senate versions of the bill.
“Leaders from across the political spectrum agree that closing Guantanamo is vital to protecting our national security,” said Human Rights First’s Raha Wala. “If President Obama fails to close Guantanamo, this stain on America’s legacy, and propaganda tool for extremists, will be passed along to the next administration.”
The NDAA includes language that would make it 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.
The Senate version of the NDAA does, however, include two provisions that are a step in the right direction for closing Guantanamo and bolstering humane treatment of detainees. One provision allows for detainees at Guantanamo to accept plea deals in a civilian Article III federal court and then be transferred to a foreign country to serve the sentence. A second provision allows for temporary transfers of Guantanamo detainees to the United States for emergency medical treatment.
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 80 detainees held at Guantanamo, which costs approximately $445 million per year to operate, about $5.5 million per detainee.
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.
“This is President Obama’s last opportunity to close Guantanamo,” said Wala. “He must act now if there is any chance that Guantanamo is to close during his presidency.”
Human Rights First notes that today’s legislation also fails to extend the Afghan Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program, which allows Afghans who provided crucial support to the U.S. Armed Forces and other U.S. government agencies operating in Afghanistan to be eligible for visas. The visa program is a critical lifeline for those allies who risked their lives serving alongside the United States military and have come under well-documented threats from the Taliban and other groups hostile to the United States. Currently, ten thousand Afghan applicants are waiting in the SIV application backlog, and the State Department has fewer than four thousand visas remaining—a shortfall of more than six thousand visas. The State Department requested four thousand additional visas so that it can continue processing applications and issuing visas but this request was not granted in the NDAA. Human Rights First urges the Senate to extend the program in its annual appropriations bill.