Obama urges Congress to lift restrictions on detainee transfers, outlines plan to close Guantanamo

President Barack Obama is, once again, urging Congress to lift restrictions on detainee transfers from Guantanamo Bay, saying the restrictions “make no sense” given that half of the detainees have been approved for release since 2009.

“As President, I have tried to close GTMO. I transferred 67 detainees to other countries before Congress imposed restrictions to effectively prevent us from either transferring detainees to other countries or imprisoning them here in the United States,” said Obama at the National Defense University in Fort McNair on Thursday. “These restrictions make no sense. After all, under President Bush, some 530 detainees were transferred from GTMO with Congress’s support…Given my administration’s relentless pursuit of al Qaeda’s leadership, there is no justification beyond politics for Congress to prevent us from closing a facility that should have never have been opened.”

Of the 166 men being held at Guantanamo, 86 of them were unanimously cleared for release by the Defense Department, the Justice Department, and the intelligence community more than 3 years ago.

Those 86 detainees are still held at Guantanamo, without charge or trial, due to two provisions in the National Defense Authorization Act of 2012 that prohibited detainees from being transferred to the United States to face trial in federal court (Section 1026) and banned any federal funds from being used to transfer or release Guantanamo detainees (Section 1028) and blocked the transfer of detainees to any country where a previously released detainee was confirmed to have “engaged in any terrorist activity”.

The NDAA restrictions were primarily motivated by the Justice Department’s attempt to bring Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged “mastermind” of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and his co-conspirators to the United States to stand trial in federal court.

“No person has ever escaped one of our super-max or military prisons here in the United States — ever. Our courts have convicted hundreds of people for terrorism or terrorism-related offenses, including some folks who are more dangerous than most GTMO detainees. They’re in our prisons,” Obama said.

Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, argued that there is no need for Congress to lift the transfer restrictions, pointing out that the NDAA provides for a waiver process on detainee transfers.

According to Ayotte, the waiver process requires the Obama administration to “certify to Congress that they can mitigate the risk” of detainees released from Guantanamo would not re-engage in hostile acts against the United States, certify that detainees transferred to the custody of a foreign government will be held in a secure facility, and justify why the detainee’s release is “in the national security interest” of the U.S.

“We’ve given him a standard and if they can’t certify with respect to each individual at Guantanamo that they have mitigate the risk of re-engagement so they aren’t attacking us or our allies again and they have made sure that it’s in the national security interest of the United States of America, they could make decisions to transfer under the process we’ve created for them. And it seems to me those are fair considerations,” said Ayotte. “So I don’t think we need to repeal a process we’ve given them. If they want to exercise it, justify to Congress why these individuals will not present a national security risk if we transfer them.”

Obama stressed that not only has Guantanamo, with its shameful history of detainee abuse coupled with the perceived lack of transparency and due process of the military tribunal system, become a powerful recruiting tool for violent extremists, the detention facility is now the most expensive prison in United States.

“During a time of budget cuts, we spend $150 million each year to imprison 166 people — almost $1 million per prisoner,” said Obama. “And the Department of Defense estimates that we must spend another $200 million to keep GTMO open at a time when we’re cutting investments in education and research here at home, and when the Pentagon is struggling with sequester and budget cuts.”

In his speech, Obama also announced his plan to lift the moratorium on detainee transfers to Yemen. Obama stopped the transfer of detainees to Yemen shortly after the 2009 attempted bombing of a Detroit-bound flight by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian man who was trained and equipped by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen, because of fears that the Yemeni government could not adequately monitor the released detainees to prevent them from re-engaging in terrorist acts against the United States.

There are 56 Yemeni detainee awaiting transfer back to their home country; they account for more than half of the detainees cleared for release.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who also serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said that the security condition in Yemen is still too precarious to allow the transfer of detainees there.

“Anybody who would send somebody back to Yemen today is doing the people of Yemen a disservice as well as the United States. The President of Yemen has been a better partner. Things are getting somewhat better in Yemen. But I cannot believe…that the conditions on the ground in Yemen…are such that it would be a good idea to release people we’ve held for years as terrorists back into Yemen,” said Graham.

One of the sticking points that needs resolution is what to do with detainees who are known to have “participated in dangerous plots or attacks” but who could not be brought to trial because the evidence against them were gathered through torture and, therefore, inadmissible in court.

Graham told reporters that the 2009 negotiations to close Guantanamo broke down because the White House would not agree to allow detainees to be held indefinitely as “enemy combatants” on U.S. soil.

“Under law of war, you don’t have to take them to trial because they’re enemy combatants to be held off the battlefield,” Graham explained. “Mr. President, if you want to try to find a new location to move these detainees inside the United States, you need to have a plan that will assure the American people that there will be a system to keep these people off the battlefield.”

Obama expressed optimism that once the U.S. commits to closing Guantanamo this “legacy problem can be resolved, consistent with our commitment to the rule of law.”

“I know the politics are hard. But history will cast a harsh judgment on this aspect of our fight against terrorism and those of us who fail to end it. Imagine a future — 10 years from now or 20 years from now — when the United States of America is still holding people who have been charged with no crime on a piece of land that is not part of our country,” said Obama. “Look at the current situation, where we are force-feeding detainees who are being held on a hunger strike… Is this who we are? Is that something our Founders foresaw? Is that the America we want to leave our children?”

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3 Comments on “Obama urges Congress to lift restrictions on detainee transfers, outlines plan to close Guantanamo

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