- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 6, 2018

Congress is readying for a fight over the future of the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, as members of the House and Senate defense panels draft their versions of the Pentagon’s budget for the coming fiscal year.

Democrats on the House Armed Services Committee have staked out their position on Guantanamo Bay in proposals attached to their $708.1 billion version of the fiscal 2019 defense spending bill. Released Friday, their plan would prevent the full closure of Guantanamo and continue the long-standing congressional ban on transferring detainees to prisons on U.S. soil.

But House Democrats also are calling for a ban on “the construction of a new High Value Detainee Complex” at the detention facility. The complex would be a critical piece of the Trump White House’s plans to prepare the 9/11-era military prison to detain some of the more than 400 Islamic State terrorists currently held by U.S.-backed Syrian and Iraqi forces.

House Republicans on the defense committee generally support the White House plan, but they did not specifically address Guantanamo’s future in their $717 billion version of the Pentagon’s spending package. Committee staffers with the Republican majority declined to comment Friday as to why.

“There is no change to [Guantanamo] policy” in the Republican version of the spending bill, a committee staffer told reporters on Capitol Hill.

Members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, meanwhile, plan to hammer out the details of the Defense Department’s fiscal 2019 spending package behind closed doors this month. All of the Senate defense panel’s subcommittee markups and full committee markups will be closed to the public, committee staffers announced Thursday.

Aside from Guantanamo, members of the House defense panel are pushing to block any foreign military sales to Turkey. The language in the House draft would bar the White House and the Pentagon from taking “any action to execute the delivery of a foreign military sale for major defense equipment” to Ankara pending Pentagon review of the “increasing strains” of Washington’s ties with the NATO ally.

Turkey and the U.S. have been at odds since Washington’s decision to back Kurdish militias in Syria and Iraq. Ankara characterizes the militias as terrorist groups.

Turkey also strained U.S. relations after tentatively agreeing to purchase Russian S-400 anti-missile systems rather than American-made weaponry.

On the domestic side, House Democrats are calling for $117 billion to restore military readiness among the services. The majority of the funds would go toward U.S. fighters and warships, which have been plagued by fatal accidents over the past several months.

The Air National Guard on Thursday identified nine officers and senior airmen who died Wednesday in a C-130 cargo aircraft crash in Savannah, Georgia. The flight crew was taking the aging aircraft on its final flight before retiring it.

Overworked ships pressed into service in the Pacific was a key contributor to a slew of accidents and fatal at-sea collisions marked by the deaths of nearly 20 U.S. sailors in 7th Fleet last summer.

The White House and the Defense Department have been mum on how they plan to move forward with the administration’s executive order issued in January calling for a 90-day reassessment of U.S. detainee operations, including restarting transfers of terrorists to the military prison in Cuba.

That has not kept lawmakers on Senate defense-related committees from staking out positions on whether the infamous prison should be reopened for Islamic State detainees taken off the battlefields in Iraq and Syria, or to continue repatriating Guantanamo’s last 40 detainees and shutter the facility.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, publicly pressed Attorney General Jeff Sessions in April for his personal assurances to help keep Guantanamo open for business.

“Do you think they are ever going to use it [again] in my lifetime?” Mr. Graham asked Mr. Sessions last month during a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing on the Justice Department’s fiscal 2019 budget.

“I do not know. It could be, certainly, if we have a surge of arrestees,” should the White House follow through with its executive order to keep the prison operating, Mr. Sessions replied.

‘A global problem’

Currently, 489 Islamic State members are in the custody of the Iraqi and U.S.-backed Kurdish paramilitary coalition known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, most of them in Syria. The SDF, with the backing of American artillery and air power, liberated the Islamic State’s de facto capital of Raqqa, Syria, from the terrorist group’s control last year.

“They are in a makeshift jail. They are going to get out of prison and these are real hard-core killers,” Mr. Graham said during April’s hearing of Islamic State detainees in Iraq and Syria.

Two of those detainees in Syria are reportedly part of a group of British nationals dubbed “the Beatles,” who beheaded U.S. journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff and American aid worker Peter Kassig.

“I would appreciate it if you would push the administration to live up to the president’s promise” about the prison, Mr. Graham told Mr. Sessions, who said he would carry that message to the White House.

Defense Secretary James Mattis on Thursday sent to the White House the findings of the Guantanamo review and policy recommendations, ordered by the Trump administration in January. Pentagon press secretary Dana White confirmed Friday that the White House had received Mr. Mattis’ recommendations, but she declined to provide more details.

“He did submit it and ultimately the White House will decide how we move forward with the policy,” Ms. White said during a Pentagon briefing.

Mr. Mattis’ recommendation reportedly “provides our war fighters guidance on nominating detainees for transfer to Guantanamo detention should that person present a continuing, significant threat to the security of the United States,” Navy Cmdr. Sarah Higgins, a Pentagon spokeswoman, told Voice of America this month.

Without any decision or further guidance from the executive branch for Guantanamo, the Pentagon policy of repatriation of detainees introduced under the Obama White House will continue, Ms. White said.

“We are trying to encourage countries to take back their citizens. We will continue to push that, because it’s important that we have a coalition. Violent extremism is a global problem, and we need global action. And therefore we need nations to accept their citizens back,” she said.

Saudi national Ahmed Mohammed Ahmed Haza al-Darbi, who pleaded guilty in 2014 to a 2002 al Qaeda bomb attack on a French oil tanker off the coast of Yemen, was the first Guantanamo detainee to be repatriated under the Trump administration. Riyadh confirmed that al-Darbi was returned Wednesday to Saudi Arabia.

Mr. Trump has made clear his plan to put the George W. Bush-era prison at the forefront of the White House strategy to deal with foreign fighters captured in Iraq and Syria — countering the Obama administration’s effort to shutter Guantanamo.

Opponents of the prison said the enhanced interrogation techniques — such as sleep deprivation, extreme isolation and waterboarding — used at Guantanamo and other “black sites” were tantamount to torture. Obama-era officials argued that the prison had become a lightning rod for anti-American rhetoric and represented a call to arms for jihadis.

“I would urge [for] you and the administration to not provide another opportunity for terrorists to be able to use Guantanamo as a recruiting tool” by filling it with new Islamic State detainees, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, New Hampshire Democrat, told Mr. Sessions during the April appropriations hearing.

Mr. Mattis declined Monday to comment on what the future mission, if any, would be for Guantanamo.

The four-star general reiterated that whatever operations carried out at the prison going forward, “I am absolutely certain that there is not one thing going on down there that would not be in accordance with the international protocol,” he told reporters.

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