What the House Foreign Affairs Committee Didn’t Get about Gitmo

This morning the House Foreign Affairs Committee held a hearing on “The Administration’s Plan to Close the Guantanamo Bay Detention Facility: At What Foreign Policy and National Security Cost?” The Obama Administration recently released a long-awaited plan detailing the steps needed to finally close down the prison in southeastern Cuba.

Lee Wolosky, State Department Envoy for the closure of Guantanamo, and Paul Lewis, Department of Defense Envoy for the closure of Guantanamo, testified. Both men have previously spoken of their support for the administration’s plan and their desire to see the facility closed. In their opening statements, they both also noted the letter from 42 retired flag officers sent last year to Senators McCain and Reed, supporting the responsible closure of the prison at Guantanamo. Ranking member Eliot Engle also entered another statement into the record by Major General Michael R. Lehnert.

A major point of contention in today’s hearing was the issue of recidivism. Under the 2012 Intelligence Authorization Act, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence must release updated recidivism statistics of released Guantanamo detainees no less than once every six months. The most recent statistics were released earlier this month, and are current as of January 15, 2016.

The latest report states that 4.9 percent of detainees released under the Obama administration are confirmed of engaging in terrorist activities. In real numbers, this means seven detainees out of 144 (one of whom is dead). This low number speaks to the painstaking and thorough process the Obama Administration put in place when transferring detainees. Under the Bush Administration, which released 532 Guantanamo detainees without these comprehensive transfer processes, 20.9 percent are confirmed of reengaging.

Chairman Royce regularly referenced 30 percent reengagement rates, arrived at by adding together those confirmed (17.5 percent) and those suspected of reengaging (12.7 percent), over both Bush and Obama administrations. Sometimes Royce rounded up to 31 percent and at other times members of the committee, like Representative Rohrabacher, simply stated that 30 percent of former Guantanamo detainees “have returned to terrorist activities.”

The envoys explained that the vast majority of detainees who had reengaged were released under the previous administration, which did not undertake the same stringent interagency reviews and security assurance agreements with receiving countries implemented in 2009. As Wolosky was explaining this breakdown for the third time following a question by Congressman Meeks, he was interrupted by Chairman Royce and unable to continue.

Wolosky and Lewis continued to stress throughout the hearing that the costs—in terms of national security, relationships with allies, and financial—strongly outweigh any benefits of keeping the prison open.

Another issue that came up several times was the possibility of trying Guantanamo detainees in federal courts, as opposed to the military commissions at Guantanamo Bay. Since September 11, 2001, federal courts have tried and convicted nearly 500 individuals on terrorism-related charges. Military commissions have only convicted eight detainees, and four convictions were overturned.

In his opening statement, ranking member Eliot Engel noted, “it’s just a simple fact that the federal justice system has tried and punished terrorists much more effectively than military commissions.” Wolosky pointed out that Ibrahim al-Qosi, a former Guantanamo detainee, was convicted in the military commissions, served his sentence, released, and then joined Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Wolosky contended that if he had been tried in the federal system, al-Qosi would still be behind bars, like many other al Qaeda members—including Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law—who are currently serving life sentences in U.S. federal prisons.

Finally, several members brought up this week’s attacks in Brussels and last year’s attacks in Paris. Some feel that while attacks like these occur, it is irresponsible to think about closing the prison at Guantanamo. Congressman Meeks eloquently responded: “I think that the historical record is clear that in acts of fear, when we act out of fear, our nation has made monumental mistakes, and keeping Gitmo in operation out of fear…would be yet another monumental mistake that…hurts America’s interest rather than helps it.”

Today, 91 detainees remain at Guantanamo Bay. Thirty-six of them are cleared for transfer. The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2016 prohibits the transfer of Guantanamo detainees to the United States for detention or trial. The House Armed Services Committee will begin mark up on the 2017 version of this bill in late April.

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Published on March 23, 2016

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