President Obama’s pledge to close Gitmo in second term faces difficult test

President Obama’s commitment to closing the Guantánamo Bay prison in his second term is being tested before Inauguration Day after the Senate passed an open-ended ban on transferring Guantánamo detainees to the United States.

Advocacy groups are calling on the White House to veto the defense bill over the ban to show that the administration is serious about closing the prison.

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They warn that the White House has failed to show it will make an effort to close the prison in the president’s second term, adding that it augurs poorly for their chances in the next four years if the administration backs down over the latest fight.

Congress has stifled one of Obama’s first pledges as president by restricting the use of funds to transfer Guantánamo detainees to the United States for one year at a time.

Last month, Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) went a step further, with an amendment to the defense authorization bill removing the one-year timetable and making the restriction indefinite. It passed 54-41.

While future sessions of Congress could overturn the restriction, advocates for closing the prison warn that making the more-permanent language law is a dangerous precedent.

“Sen. Ayotte has waved a red cape at the president. He has to respond and make clear this is not acceptable,” said Andrea Prasow, senior counterterrorism counsel at Human Rights Watch. “If he doesn’t act, Congress is going to continue to tie his hands.”

The White House is threatening to veto the defense bill over the Guantánamo restrictions, among other provisions. White House officials say the administration has been clear in its commitment to close Guantánamo, but that Congress has blocked efforts to do so.

The administration also threatened a veto over last year’s Guantánamo restrictions but wound up backing down. The president ultimately signed the bill.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta added to the new veto threat this week in a letter to Armed Services Committee leaders that included language objecting to the detainee-transfer restrictions.

Chris Anders, senior legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union, said he sees stronger signals in Panetta’s letter, compared to Pentagon statements last year.

“This is a potentially key moment for the president’s commitment to close Guantánamo,” Anders said. “[The letter] doesn’t necessarily reflect a decision, but it certainly is yet another signal to Congress that the veto is on the table.”

House and Senate lawmakers are currently negotiating a final defense bill in conference committee, and administration officials are playing a key role in the discussions. The open-ended Ayotte provision could wind up being changed to a one-year restriction, or perhaps removed altogether.

Advocacy groups say they will not be satisfied even if the Ayotte provision is watered down to a yearlong restriction. Human Rights First is waging a public campaign to lobby Obama with a letter signed by 27 retired military officials urging a veto of legislation with Guantánamo transfer restrictions.

Anders said that a one-year ban lets the restrictions “only get further entrenched on Capitol Hill.”

“The problem that the administration has is that for a lot of the conferees, since the president signed these restrictions twice, they’re viewing it as the status quo,” he said.

Obama took office in 2009 with closing Guantánamo high on his to-do list. He signed an executive order to close the prison in his first week in office.

While he had some initial support, Obama ran into problems with lawmakers when it came to details over where to house detainees. He faced an even bigger backlash over an attempt to put alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed on trial in a New York City federal court, a plan the administration eventually abandoned.

Lawmakers who support keeping Guantánamo open say that public opinion is on their side. They expressed skepticism that Obama will follow through with his veto threat and predicted that Guantánamo restrictions would remain in the final defense bill.

“My recollection is that they threatened to last year as well and they did not,” Ayotte told The Hill. “So I would find it surprising that the president would veto such an important bill with so many important provisions to our men and women in uniform over an issue where the American people, frankly, agree with my position.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said Obama has “nobody to blame but himself” for not getting Guantánamo closed.

“We were ready right after he got elected to close Gitmo, but he could never tell the left we’re going to have indefinite detention, we’re going to have a law-of-war regime to deal with these detainees,” Graham said, referencing the fight over trying Mohammed and others in civilian courts or military commissions.

Lawmakers fighting to close Guantánamo say they will continue to make their case to the public and their colleagues that the controversial facility should be shuttered.

“I hope they veto it,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who nonetheless voted for the overall defense bill, including the restrictions, which passed 98-0. “I think it’s worth the fight. I don’t think you give up on something like this. It’s a matter of principle.”

Feinstein released a Government Accountability Office report last month that looked at alternatives to housing detainees at Guantánamo. She touted the fact that 98 U.S. prisons have held prisoners convicted of terrorism-related charges, arguing that U.S. facilities could, in fact, hold Guantánamo detainees.

But Graham warned that even if Obama wants to veto the defense bill, he still can’t stop Congress from adopting the Guantánamo transfer restrictions.

“No, because we’ll override his veto,” Graham said.