New pledge, same obstacles on Gitmo

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President Obama has renewed a push to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility by the end of 2014, but even supporters of the plan admit he may run into the same obstacles as before. 

The goal was outlined in the president's State of the Union address earlier this week as part of an effort to get the country off “permanent war footing,” as the country winds down from the war in Afghanistan.  

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“I think the president needs to set the goal and try to achieve it. And that’s what he’s doing,” said Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee.

However, he added, “The biggest sticking point remains that Congress is opposed to transferring any of the inmates to the U.S.” 

While the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act relaxed some restrictions on releasing or transferring detainees to foreign countries, it kept in place restrictions on transfers to the U.S.

There are 155 detainees remaining in Guantanamo, many of whom have been cleared and will eventually be returned to their home countries or transferred to others, and some whose cases still need to be prosecuted or cannot be tried.

Critics of Obama’s push to close Guantanamo say they don’t see Congress changing its mind about moving detainees to U.S. soil anytime soon. 

“Members on both sides of the aisle repeatedly vote to maintain that prohibition,” said a House GOP aide familiar with the issue. “And in part they do so because the president has not articulated in any fashion what a post-American transfer of detainees would look like.

“He has not told us how he intends to try those detainees, he has not told us what he intends to do with the detainees that cannot be tried but remain a critical threat and he’s not told us how he’d treat any future terrorist captures,” the aide said.

After an initial push in 2009, the administration disappointed human rights advocates by stepping back from its efforts to close the prison. But it has transferred more than 10 detainees within the last 12 months, raising new hopes for a closure. 

Smith also acknowledged that restarting detainee transfers to Yemen was a key piece to closing Guantanamo. 

Congress last year dropped an explicit moratorium of detainee transfers to Yemen, but there are still conditions in place that may make such transfers difficult, and they have not resumed.

According to the NDAA, the defense secretary must determine that actions have been taken to substantially mitigate the risk of the detainee engaging or reengaging in any activity that threatens the U.S.

In addition, he or she must also consider the “security situation” in any country where detainees will be transferred to or released, including whether it is a state sponsor of terrorism, there is the presence of foreign terrorist groups and if the groups pose a threat to the U.S.

The administration is also required to issue a report on the capability of Yemen to detain, rehabilitate and prosecute those detainees, which could make it difficult to approve those transfers. 

“Based on past history…there is a decent chance that a number of the Yemeni detainees will rejoin al Qaeda,” said Washington Institute for Near East Policy fellow Daniel R. Green. 

There has been a long history of prison breaks of Al Qaeda insurgents in the country that have invigorated Al Qaeda’s presence there, said Green. 

“Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) was reconstituted following a prison break in 2006,” he said. One of the prisoners was Nasir al Wuhayshi, the group’s current leader, he added. 

Although Yemen is currently building a prison for the expected return of the detainees, security there is tenuous, he said. 

On January 16, AQAP attacked a Yemeni army base in central Yemen, killing 10 soldiers and seizing three armored personnel carriers, according to Long War Journal. And on December 5, the group assaulted the Yemeni defense ministry in the capitol of Sanaa, killing 56. 

However, Smith expressed optimism in working with the new Yemeni President Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi. 

“I think there’s growing confidence that Yemen can get to the point where it’s a responsible place to do this,” he said. 

Other lawmakers who support closing Guantanamo say that the administration needs to spell out a clear plan on what it plans to do with the detainees, before they can approve their transfer to the U.S. 

“I think it’s at least possible to have a provision which does require a detailed plan, which could — if it meets certain criteria — then lead to the removal of these detainees to the United States for detention, trial and imprisonment,” said Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.  

“I think it would convince enough of the Senate — if it was a viable plan,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), one of Obama’s few Republican allies in favor of closing Guantanamo. 

McCain said White House counsel told him in 2009 that the administration would release a detailed blueprint for closing the prison “within a month,” but it never came.

“They still haven’t complied with coming forward with a plan,” he said. 

To change minds in Congress, the GOP aide said, “The president would have to be willing to do something he has to date he has not actually done, which is put real political capital behind it — not just an annual speech calling for it to be closed, which seems to be all he’s willing to do.”

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