Obama find­ing it dif­fi­cult to keep his 2008 prom­ise

The Washington Times Weekly - - Geopolitics - BY JAC­QUE­LINE KLI­MAS

Trans­fers from the Guan­tanamo prison com­pound — sharply re­stricted since 2011 by law­mak­ers wor­ried about de­tainees re­turn­ing to the bat­tle­field — have picked up again in re­cent years as Congress re­laxed some man­dates and Pres­i­dent Obama found ways to send some in­mates home.

But with an­other de­fense pol­icy bill and November elec­tions loom­ing, there is lit­tle prospect of any more loos­en­ing of con­trols this year, an­a­lysts say.

“I don’t think they’re go­ing to be seek­ing any changes with re­spect to de­tainee trans­fers, in large part be­cause what I think were overly re­stric­tive trans­fer pro­vi­sions from pre­vi­ous years were re­laxed last year,” said Cully Stim­son, a se­nior fel­low at the Her­itage Foun­da­tion who served as deputy as­sis­tant sec­re­tary of de­fense for de­tainee af­fairs un­der Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush.

Mr. Obama cam­paigned in 2008 on a prom­ise of clos­ing the de­ten­tion fa­cil­ity in Cuba, which Mr. Bush opened soon af­ter the war on ter­ror­ism be­gan in 2001. One of Mr. Obama’s first acts as pres­i­dent was to set a one-year dead­line for clos­ing the prison, but he has con­tin­u­ally been frus­trated by Congress — in­clud­ing mem­bers of his own Demo­cratic Party.

With no re­stric­tions in place, Mr. Obama made early head­way by trans­fer­ring 49 de­tainees dur­ing his first full year in of­fice and 19 in 2010, ac­cord­ing to data compiled by The New York Times.

But shut­ting down the fa­cil­ity en­tirely proved more dif­fi­cult than he ex­pected, largely be­cause some home coun­tries re­fused to take cleared de­tainees, said Stephen Vladeck, a law pro­fes­sor at Amer­i­can Univer­sity Wash­ing­ton Col­lege of Law.

“He had a bit of a win­dow where there was no statu­tory im­ped­i­ment to­ward clos­ing Guan­tanamo,” he said. “The ad­min­is­tra­tion en­coun­tered more diplo­matic re­sis­tance than it ex­pected, then the abil­ity to trans­fer be­came that much harder af­ter re­stric­tions were in place.”

The first of those [leg­isla­tive] re­stric­tions was im­posed in the an­nual de­fense pol­icy bill ap­proved in late 2010, when Democrats con­trolled both houses of Congress. Those re­stric­tions pre­vented any de­tainees from be­ing trans­ferred to the U.S. and al­lowed trans­fers to other coun­tries only if or­dered by a court.

No one was trans­ferred in 2011, and just four de­tainees were trans­ferred in 2012.

With hun­dreds of de­tainees lan­guish­ing, the ad­min­is­tra­tion pleaded for changes. Congress agreed in the 2013 de­fense pol­icy bill, which re­quired the ad­min­is­tra­tion to sub­mit a risk as­sess­ment of the de­tainee’s re­turn to ter­ror­ist ac­tiv­i­ties and to reach a se­cu­rity agree­ment with the coun­try tak­ing back the de­tainee. The ban on trans­fers to the U.S. re­mains in place.

Eleven de­tainees were trans­ferred in 2013, and one has been re­moved from Guan­tanamo Bay so far this year. Al­ge­rian de­tainee Ahmed Bin Saleh Bel­bacha, the last of four Al­ge­ri­ans at the camp, was re­leased in March. It was the first re­lease in more than three months, when the Pen­tagon an­nounced that Noor Uth­man Muhammed and Ibrahim Oth­man Ibrahim Idris were re­turned to the govern­ment of Su­dan.

That left 154 de­tainees as of March. Of those, 70 have been cleared for trans­fer, said Chris An­ders, se­nior leg­isla­tive coun­cil for the Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union.

“We’re hop­ing that the pace of the trans­fers over­seas of cleared de­tainees picks up, but there are a lot of steps that the sec­re­tary of de­fense has to go through be­fore a trans­fer is done,” Mr. An­ders said. “All this is a long process, which is par­tic­u­larly un­fair for the de­tainees who have been cleared and have no rea­son to be sit­ting in a prison for 12 years.”

What is not likely to change are the re­stric­tions set by Congress.

Mr. Stim­son said the ma­jor­ity of law­mak­ers think the rules are le­nient enough, and Mr. An­ders said he doubts Congress would tackle such a thorny is­sue just be­fore elec­tions.

Ken Gude, a se­nior fel­low at the Cen­ter for Amer­i­can Progress, said the prospect of Demo­cratic losses in the House and Se­nate in November sug­gests that the prospect of clos­ing Guan­tanamo for good as Mr. Obama promised may slip fur­ther into the fu­ture, no mat­ter who suc­ceeds Mr. Obama in 2017.

“Clos­ing Guan­tanamo re­quires a sig­nif­i­cant in­vest­ment of po­lit­i­cal will and cap­i­tal,” Mr. Gude wrote last month, “and it is un­likely that any new pres­i­dent would elect such a course fol­low­ing the eight years of fail­ure and pain of the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, es­pe­cially when the po­lit­i­cal pay­off is so low.”

Guan­tanamo op­po­nents, who ar­gue that the con­tin­ued ex­is­tence of the camp com­pli­cates the abil­ity to work with al­lies and does not aid the U.S. in the war on ter­ror­ism, said that shouldn’t be an ex­cuse for not act­ing.

Rep. James P. Mo­ran, Vir­ginia Demo­crat, tried to erase some of the trans­fer re­stric­tions last week. He of­fered an amend­ment to the mil­i­tary con­struc­tion spend­ing bill in the House that would have let the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion build a re­place­ment prison in the U.S.

His amend­ment was eas­ily de­feated on a 249-168 vote.

“It seems to me we have a com­pelling case, but the mem­bers are more in­ter­ested in the level of ig­no­rance of their con­stituen­cies than in some cases show­ing the kind of lead­er­ship I wish they would,” Mr. Mo­ran said. “Most of the mem­bers know what the right thing to do is, but they know how their con­stituents are go­ing to per­ceive it.”

Rep. John Ab­ney Cul­ber­son, Texas Repub­li­can and chair­man of the House Ap­pro­pri­a­tions mil­i­tary con­struc­tion sub­com­mit­tee, led the op­po­si­tion to Mr. Mo­ran’s amend­ment. He said law­mak­ers are com­fort­able with where things stand.

“I do not ex­pect any changes in cur­rent law be­cause the coun­try and a clear ma­jor­ity of the House op­pose chang­ing our cur­rent pol­icy to­ward ter­ror­ist de­tainees held at the de­ten­tion fa­cil­ity at Guan­tanamo Bay,” he said in a state­ment.


Though trans­fers of de­tainees from the prison at Guan­tanamo Bay have picked up in re­cent years as Congress re­laxed some man­dates, an­other de­fense pol­icy bill and November elec­tions are loom­ing. An­a­lysts say there is lit­tle prospect of any more loos­en­ing of con­trols.

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