On Friday June 14, the House passed its version of the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), a bill that Congress takes up annually. For the first time in a long time – sparked no doubt by the President’s counterterrorism speech last month – members engaged in a serious debate over closing the Guantanamo Bay prison. Congressman Adam Smith (D-WA) led the charge, offering an amendment that set forth a comprehensive framework for closure and mandated significant steps toward that end. The amendment didn’t pass, and the House bill foolishly would add a layer of restrictions – in practice duplicative of the yet-to-be-met, at least to date, certification requirements – on transfers to Yemen, but simply having the debate was a step in the right direction.
There are numerous, compelling reasons to close Guantánamo, as a majority of the members of our Task Force on Detainee Treatment recently recommended. The prison continues to undermine our moral standing in the world and to damage our relationships with allies; the financial cost is astounding, at nearly $1.6 million per detainee annually; and – as the most powerful symbol of abuses committed by the United States in the post-9/11 era – Guantánamo serves as a recruiting tool for those who wish to do us harm. It is also the center of an unfolding humanitarian crisis: over 100 detainees are now on hunger strike, more than 40 of whom are being subjected to the abusive practice of force-feeding.
The debate now moves to the Senate, where there are some encouraging early signs. Just over a week ago, Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Republican Senator John McCain (R-AZ) and White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough issued a joint statement following a trip to Guantánamo expressing their continued belief that “it is in our national interest to end detention at Guantánamo, with a safe and orderly transition of the detainees to other locations.” Reports out of the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC), which completed markup of its version of the NDAA Friday, June 14, suggest that members are looking to facilitate that transition. According to SASC Chair Carl Levin (D-MI), his committee’s bill would give the President “greater flexibility” in moving detainees out of Guantánamo. Exactly what that means remains to be seen – the SASC bill is marked up behind closed doors and likely won’t reach the Senate floor before July – but reports suggest that the bill as proposed no longer bars all transfers to the United States. However those restrictions would be loosened, it’s progress and inspires some confidence that the Yemen transfer ban in the House NDAA won’t survive the negotiated bill that ultimately reaches the President’s desk.
These developments, if incremental, are important. Momentum towards closure is building, and the President must seize it. The announcement on Monday, June 17 that highly respected attorney Clifford Sloan (no relation to TCP’s president Virginia Sloan) would become the new State Department envoy charged with closing the prison is a welcome development, but there is much more the President can and should do – now. He can name Sloan’s counterpart at the Department of Defense, and provide them both the authority and independence to make real progress. He can direct Secretary of Defense Hagel to use the powers he has under current law to begin transferring cleared detainees out of Guantánamo. And, perhaps most importantly, he can meaningfully engage with Congress. That is the best path forward if the President wants to avoid repeating his failed attempt to close Guantánamo in 2009. For many of us, his legacy will turn on the extent to which he walks it.
The views expressed in this blog post are not necessarily those of TCP, its committees, or boards.