End 22 Years Of Injustice

More Guantánamo Releases Planned Despite Hostility in Congress

An undated photo of Witness Against Torture activists marching on Congress.

By Andy Worthington, December 2, 2014

In a hopeful sign of ongoing progress on Guantánamo, following the recent release of six prisoners, Julian Barnes of the Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday that defense and congressional officials had told him that the Pentagon was "preparing to transfer additional detainees" from Guantánamo "in the coming weeks."

After four Yemenis and a Tunisian were given new homes in Georgia and Slovakia, and a Saudi was repatriated, defense officials "said there would be more transfers in December, but declined to detail their numbers or nationalities."

Laura Pitter, the senior national security counsel for Human Rights Watch, said in response, "There does seem to be a renewed effort to make the transfers happen," which, she added, seems to indicate a desire on the president's part to continue working towards closing the prison, as he promised when he took office in January 2009, before Republicans raised obstacles that he has, in general, not wished to spend political will overcoming.

There is clearly a flurry of activity on Guantánamo right now, because Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon (R-Calif.), the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and a staunch supporter of Guantánamo, recently complained, at a congressional hearing, about "an increase in the number of notifications by the administration to lawmakers on coming Guantánamo transfers."

For prisoners to be released from Guantánamo, passages inserted by lawmakers into the National Defense Authorization Act over the last few years have stipulated that the defense secretary must certify to Congress that anyone to be released will not pose a significant threat to U.S. national security.

Reports in September indicated that Chuck Hagel, the defense secretary, had been dragging his heels when it came to approving prisoners for release. In May, speaking of the certification process, he said, "My name is going on that document. That’s a big responsibility."

The Wall Street Journal's take on this was that administration officials "privately complained that Mr. Hagel [had] moved too slowly to certify detainees for release," whereas Hagel’s aides said he was "committed to thorough reviews before releases."

Last week, Chuck Hagel announced his resignation as defense secretary, apparently under pressure from the White House -- for reasons that, it seems, involve the unrelated desire of the White House to step up military action against ISIS/ISIL in the Middle East in spite of Hagel's reticence.

The Wall Street Journal noted that officials told them that senior White House officials "are growing impatient as the clock ticks down on the Obama administration and the president’s promise of closing Guantánamo remains unfulfilled," despite an increase in the release of prisoners since a major speech on national security issues last May -- and a promise to resume releasing prisoners that we are monitoring here, at the Gitmo Clock website.

However, despite Hagel's pending departure, defense officials said that he "would continue to review and approve proposals to transfer detainees out of the prison."

"He will continue apace," one particular defense official said, adding, "It will be business as usual."

According to the New York Times, Hagel notified Congress that he had "approved 11 other detainee transfers," with six of those expected to be to Uruguay. Earlier this year, the outgoing president, José Mujica, agreed to take six men -- apparently four Syrians, a stateless Palestinian and a Tunisian -- but their arrival was delayed because of the presidential election. That has now ended favourably, with the election of another leftist president, albeit one less radical than José Mujica.

It is not known what Hagel's as yet unknown successor will make of Guantánamo, of course, but the Wall Street Journal suggested it "could mean that Pentagon reviews of transfers must start anew." However, I would find that a little surprising.

Of greater concern, I think, is what Congress will do. Yesterday, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told reporters that a deal between House and Senate negotiators on passages relating to Guantánamo in the annual National Defense Authorization Act had led to a final bill that "omits a provision giving the president the authority to transfer [prisoners] to the United States if Congress signs off on a comprehensive plan to close the prison," as the Associated Press described it.

In May, the Senate Armed Services Committee had come up with a plan that Sen. Levin hailed at the time as a path to close Guantánamo," with a provision allowing prisoners to be sent to a facility on U.S. soil "for detention, trial and incarceration, subject to stringent security measures and legal protections, once the president has submitted a plan to Congress for closing Guantánamo and Congress has had an opportunity to vote to disapprove that plan under expedited procedures."

That same month, however, the version of the bill passed by the House of Representatives maintained the prohibition on the transfer of prisoners to the U.S. mainland, and with Democrats now in a minority in the Senate, it is unsurprising -- though still bitterly disappointing -- that Sen. Levin's plan failed.

It remains to be seen what wording will prevail in the final version of the bill to be passed by the House and then the Senate in the near future, but it is clear that it will not make the promise to close Guantánamo any easier.

As the Wall Street Journal noted, however, those calling for the closure of Guantánamo point out that, "even in the face of a Republican Congress, there are some points of leverage for the Obama administration" -- for example, the extraordinary cost of running the prison. Human rights advocates, the newspaper stated, "note that as the number declines, the per-inmate cost rises, increasing pressure to close the prison." As Laura Pitter of Human Rights Watch explained, it currently costs around $3 million a year per prisoner to hold the 142 men still held, compared to a fraction of that cost on the U.S. mainland -- plus, of course, 73 of these men have been approved for transfer, and yet are still being held, at a cost of nearly $220 million a year.

Getting these men out must remain a priority, and if Congress maintains its opposition to the transfer of the other men to the U.S. mainland so that Guantánamo can be closed, then President Obama must come up with some other options. It is imperative that he fulfills his promise before leaving office.