House Democrats have blocked a long-standing prohibition on transferring Guantanamo Bay detainees to the U.S., a key win in their push to close the facility.
Democrats’ have attempted to shutter the bastion of the war on terror since the Obama administration but quickly advanced the cause under President Biden.
What’s more, Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee recently eliminated funding for the U.S. military’s prison camp for terrorist suspects located at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Despite the victory in the spending bill, attempts at closing the facility have long been stymied by difficulties in removing the remaining detainees. Military policy set in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) barred the use of Pentagon funds to build new detention facilities or transfer detainees to U.S. soil.
Democrats came one step closer to removing that stumbling block on Wednesday by rejecting Ohio Republican Rep. Michael Turner’s amendments to the NDAA that would have extended the current detainee transfer prohibition.
“I hope everyone understands that throughout the country there is unbelievable outrage that there are individuals that were held at Guantanamo that are now appearing on their TV sets that are now supporting terrorist organizations, supporting the Taliban, leading the Taliban,” Mr. Turner told his colleagues on the Armed Services Committee before the vote on his amendment. “Imagine that outrage, not if they are appearing in Afghanistan running the Taliban, but if they appear in a suburb near you.”
“And that is what’s going to happen,” he said. “They are going to be all over in a suburb near you.”
The committee chairman, Washington state Democrat Adam Smith, said that keeping detainees offshore in the “most expensive incarceration facility in the world” does not make financial sense.
“Let me be 100% clear, the sum of these people are incredibly dangerous,” Mr. Smith said. “No doubt about that. It is simply my argument that in the United States of America right now in detention facilities all across the country, we have people every little bit as dangerous being kept including terrorists who have killed people.”
Mr. Turner’s amendment failed in a party-line vote.
Rep. Doug Lamborn, Colorado Republican, said that the new policy would almost certainly mean President Biden will transfer terrorist detainees to federal prisons in the U.S.
“No one should make any mistake about this,” Mr. Lamborn said. “This isn’t an optional thing, this would lead to closing Guantanamo. This would lead to people being transferred here. Giving the option to President Biden I think would mean that this is actually going to happen.”
While House Democrats were successful in blocking the amendments, the Senate-passed version of the NDAA kept the transfer prohibitions on the books. A showdown between the two Democrat-run chambers is possible when they take up the bills later this month.
Still, if both bills pass Congress, the move would accelerate Mr. Biden’s goal of closing the facility.
He prioritized ending GITMO soon after taking office. He ordered the National Security Council to complete a review of the facility and the “current state of play” that he inherited from the Trump administration, as White House press secretary Jen Psaki put it.
Frustration over the inability to close down the prison camp was a hallmark of the Obama White House. President Obama issued an executive order in his first week in office mandating an immediate review of all detentions at the facility, and its closure within one year.
The move was stymied throughout his administration by legal complexity, geopolitical constraints and domestic political hurdles.
At the time, 240 detainees were held at the facility, down from Bush-era peaks of nearly 800 prisoners. All detainees would have had to be transferred before it closed.
A year into the Obama administration, a task force identified 126 detainees who could be transferred, 48 detainees who were determined to be “too dangerous to transfer,” and 30 Yemeni detainees unable to be repatriated to their home country because of the civil war there.
The remaining detainees included in the review were referred for prosecution.
The transfers were heavily contested in Congress. The 2011 defense spending bill restricted the military from spending to transfer Guantanamo detainees to the U.S. and required the secretary of defense to certify any transfers to third countries. Similar provisions remained on the books through the remainder of Mr. Obama’s time in office.
A total of 196 detainees were eventually transferred from the facility during the Obama administration, either through repatriation or resettlement. By the time Mr. Obama left office, only 41 prisoners remained at Guantanamo Bay, including five who were previously found eligible for transfer.
The current administration inherited 40 Guantanamo detainees when Mr. Biden assumed office. In July, his administration repatriated 19-year detainee Abdul Latif Nasser to his home country of Morocco. Just 39 detainees remain at the facility.
Of those that remain, 12 have been charged with war crimes, of whom 10 await trial and two have been convicted. Another 17 detainees are being held indefinitely and are not currently facing trial and are not recommended for release. Another 10 detainees have been recommended for transfer to countries other than the U.S.