Armed Services chair worried Obama will hand Gitmo over to Cuba

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House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) says he is seeking clear assurances that the Guantánamo Bay naval base won't be handed over to Cuba during President Obama's visit there this month. 

"I am concerned that the Administration may be pursuing secret negotiations over the future of Naval Station Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, as it has acknowledged it did in the pursuit of normalized relations with Havana," Thornberry wrote in letters dated Feb. 29 to Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, Secretary of State John KerryJohn KerryBudowsky: Save Europe, revote Brexit White House: We were prepared for Brexit vote After Brexit vote, is anything left of Britain? MORE and National Security Advisor Susan Rice. 

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"The Naval Installation at Guantanamo Bay is a strategically-situated deepwater port. It provides an ideal location from which to service, stage, and project U.S. Military Forces, secure the air and maritime approaches to the United States, undertake counternarcotics efforts, and provide disaster relief," Thornberry added.  

Republican lawmakers are worried the administration will seek to give back the naval base, which houses a U.S. military detention facility that Obama wishes to shut down. 

Carter told reporters Monday that the Pentagon intends to hold onto the base. 

"It's a strategic location. We've had it for a long time. It's important to us, and we intend to hold on to it," he said. 

Thornberry said although Carter's answer was "less equivocal than his Administration colleagues," he feared that "even seemingly direct statements are subject to reinterpretation by White House lawyers." 

In his letter, Thornberry listed statements by administration officials that leave open the question of whether the base may be returned.

He also noted the administration also made similar statements in the run-up to a Guantánamo prisoner exchange with the Taliban for Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.  

"In response to questions regarding the naval station's future, Administration officials have given hedged and qualified answers, stating they do not anticipate 'significant changes' in the mission 'in the near future,' that there is no desire to alter its status 'at present,' and that there were no planned revisions 'at this stage,' " Thornberry wrote. 

"The committee has heard such qualified statements in other contexts as documented in in its December 2015 report on the transfer of the Taliban Five," he said. "Recent experience demonstrates that such statements do not accurately reflect the Administration's intentions or future actions." 

The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) determined that the administration's secret prisoner swap of five Taliban commanders from Guantánamo in exchange for Bergdahl violated a law to give Congress 30 days advance notice of any detainee transfer. 

The GAO also found that the administration broke another law by using appropriated funds to conduct a detainee transfer without 30 days of advance notice.

The president's nominee for Defense Department general counsel, Jennifer O'Conner, told the Senate Armed Services Committee last week that she did not believe the swap was a violation of the law. 

"In the circumstances presented, it was not a violation of the law," she said. "In the extremely unusual circumstances there, it was not." 

Thornberry has given administration officials until March 4 to provide answers as to whether there are any plans or discussion about returning the base to Cuba.