- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 20, 2019

The Democrat-controlled House is pushing a Pentagon budget proposal that embraces the Obama-era goal of closing the Guantanamo Bay prison for suspected terrorists, setting the stage for a clash with Republicans who have a majority in the Senate and want to keep the prison open.

Tepid bipartisan support has emerged for allowing medical transfers to the U.S. of Guantanamo detainees suffering severe ailments, but the overall future of the prison established in the wake of 9/11 remains as divisive as it has for more than a decade.

Although lawmakers on both sides are resisting President Trump’s budget request for $88 million to build a new detainee complex at Guantanamo, the Republican-led Senate Armed Services Committee made it clear in its initial markup of the budget this week that it remains intent on banning any funding that could be used to close the prison.

In contrast, the House Armed Services Committee last week approved language in its competing version of the fiscal year 2020 National Defense Authorization Act that would begin the process for transferring detainees who have been cleared to relocate to a U.S. facility and would prohibit any more detainees to be sent to the prison. The language counters President Trump’s promise to “load up” the facility with terrorist suspects.

Human rights activists say just 40 detainees are left at the U.S. naval base on Cuba’s southeastern tip, compared with some 680 who were once held and interrogated there during the years immediately after al Qaeda’s 2001 attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center.

The population shrank dramatically under President Obama to 41. His administration facilitated detainee transfers to U.S.-aligned nations that were willing to house the prisoners.

But debate over the prison has become more polarized with the high-profile trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, winding through pretrial proceedings inside a military court at Guantanamo.

The sudden ouster in April of the Navy admiral commanding the prison has added to political friction over the facility’s future, as have comments by 9/11-era officials who have argued that keeping the prison open is a costly error.

During the George W. Bush administration, which oversaw the prison’s establishment, conservative scholars argued that the facility would necessarily prevent foreign terrorist suspects detained overseas from gaining full rights as people on U.S. soil and that America would be protected in the event that Guantanamo itself ever became a terrorist target.

Human rights activists and many left-leaning scholars argued that enhanced interrogation techniques used on detainees at Guantanamo were tantamount to torture and that a legal quagmire surrounding those detained there represented a stain on the nation’s image as democracy committed to fair legal treatment for all.

“There’s a pretty big consensus among security voices that Guantanamo is harmful to U.S. national security,” Patricia Stottlemyer, an associate attorney at Human Rights First, told The Washington Times in an interview.

She cited retired Marine Maj. Gen. Michael R. Lehnert, one of the top defense officials involved with opening the prison, who said in 2013 that “our decision to keep Guantanamo open has helped our enemies because it validates every negative perception of the United States.”

Supporters of the prison have gained traction over the years with assertions that it is simply too risky to release or transfer suspected terrorists held there because they could pose a threat to the U.S. and even return to the battlefield. U.S. intelligence officials have confirmed dozens of cases in which former detainees have returned to terrorist-related or other militant activities after being released from Guantanamo.

However, Mr. Trump’s vow to send captured Islamic State suspects to Guantanamo — “bad dudes” apprehended overseas as he called them on the campaign trail — has effectively gone nowhere. The president did, though, announce an executive order during his first State of the Union address to keep the prison open.

The last known detainee sent to Guantanamo was in 2008, according to data from Human Rights First.

Over the past two years, lawmakers on Capitol Hill have increasingly taken the issue into their own hands. The National Defense Authorization Act debate is the latest battleground where Guantanamo’s future is being considered.

“The operation of Guantanamo Bay Naval Base has, for years, been exceedingly costly and mired in controversy,” the Democrat-led House Armed Services Committee argued in a summary of its version of the 2020 Pentagon budget last week.

At the heart of the debate over the coming days will be whether Democrats and Republicans can come together on the issue of detainee medical transfers to the U.S. rather than sending medical professionals to the remote prison in the Caribbean.

The House’s $733 billion version of the overall Pentagon budget allows for any kind of transfer, medical or otherwise, and the $750 billion Senate version includes provisions that would restrict transfers to medical emergencies.

Once the Senate and House settle on their respective versions of the bill, they will conference, likely in July, for what could become heated negotiations.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, Washington Democrat, has long fought for an end to the prison, according to a committee staffer who told The Times this week that the congressman “has made a major effort … to try to close down Guantanamo.”

But Republicans on the committee, led by ranking member Mac Thornberry of Texas, oppose any transfers to the U.S., even for temporary medical treatment. “[He] believes we should focus on treatment options at GTMO,” a committee aide told The Times in an email.

The debate is playing out differently in the Senate. Since 2013, the Senate Armed Services Committee has tried to include a provision in the defense budget that would allow transfers to the U.S. for emergency medical care.

The Republican-led committee’s $750 billion proposed budget for fiscal year 2020 includes the provision but clearly calls for a ban on funding to close the prison.

The committee’s ranking Democrat, Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, told The Times on Thursday that he has “been for a long time thinking we have to close the prison.”

Others are divided. Sen. Angus S. King Jr., Maine independent and member of the committee, told The Times that the provision to allow medical transfers “just makes economic sense.” But for now, said Mr. King, he would like the prison to remain open.

Republican members in general have taken a hard stance. Sen. Rick Scott, a freshman member of the committee, said he wants Guantanamo to stay in business. “I do not want [detainees] coming to Florida,” Mr. Scott, Florida’s former governor, told The Times. “I don’t want them coming to the United States.”

An aide said the senator voted against the medical transfer provision in a closed-door markup session.

The medical transfer issues is seen as increasingly key because of the aging population of remaining detainees. The oldest is 71. Many are struggling with standard medical issues associated with aging such as poor eyesight, dementia and joint problems. Diagnoses of more severe and chronic ailments have required emergency surgery teams to be flown to the facility.

Senior military officials at Guantanamo have pressured lawmakers to provide guidance on how to care for the detainees, according to a report by Defense One. The Geneva Conventions require that prisoners of war be provided the same level of care as U.S. service members.

Ms. Stottlemyer at Human Rights First argued that the Republican-led Senate committee’s inclusion of the medical transfer provision, even if only for emergencies, should be read as a positive step. “[It] signals an important and correct recognition on the part of the Senate there’s a real problem with medical care at Guantanamo,” she said.

“It’s about complying with our obligations for how we treat people who we’re holding in our custody,” Ms. Stottlemyer said. “I think this is a good first step towards trying to uphold those obligations.”

• Lauren Toms can be reached at lmeier@washingtontimes.com.

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