One-by-one, lawmakers nudge Obama on Guantanamo

In advance of Barack Obama's anticipated counterterrorism speech on Thursday, a string of lawmakers are calling on the president to back up his pledge to close the U.S. detention facility in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. 

On Tuesday, Adam Smith (D-WA), ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, implored the president to "re-engage with Congress" in an open letter to the White House. "Until that facility is closed, it will continue to symbolize an unjust attempt to avoid the rule of law and to undermine the United States' moral standing," he writes. 

The letter calls for substantive action including appointing a senior official (either in the State Department or White House) to find a home for detainees cleared for transfer by the Guantanamo Detainee Review Task force; waiving the U.S. ban on transfers to Yemen; and immediately prosecuting detainees who can be tried in U.S. federal courts or military commissions.

Smith's letter does not appear to be organized in conjunction with Rep. James McGovern (D-MA) who sent a similar letter last week urging the president to appoint someone "who wakes up every day with the mandate to complete the expeditious transfer of detainees cleared of all charges to other countries." McGovern's letter also demanded a review of the "practices and procedures for forced feeding used at Guantanamo" in light of the ongoing food strike at the facility. Two weeks ago, Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) sent a similar letter to the president -- ditto for Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) a few weeks before that.

Meanwhile, Rep. Jim Moran (D-VA) is currently circulating a letter for signatures in the House demanding the closure of Guantánamo. His spokeswoman Anne Hughes says it has already garnered the signatures of Reps. McGovern, Betty McCollum (D-MN), John Conyers (D-MI), Barbara Lee (D-CA), Jared Polis (D-CO) and Raul Grijalva (D-AZ). 

The surge of interest in closing the facility comes ahead of the president's address at the National Defense University at Washington's Fort McNair. According to the Washington Post, "He will discuss the policy and legal framework under which we take action against terrorist threats, including the use of drones. And he will review our detention policy and efforts to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay."

The president has repeatedly blamed Congress for hamstringing his ability to close the facility. And while it did restrict the use of funds to transfer detainees to the continental United States for trial, there are a number of measures he could implement to hasten Guantánamo's closure, as Human Rights Watch's Laura Pitter pointed out earlier this month. (In particular, transferring the 86 detainees already designated for release to their home or third countries.)

Still, top Republican lawmakers maintain the prison serves an important function. "Whatever image problems that linger around Guantánamo Bay pale in comparison to the risk of not having a prison," said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC). "The options are getting limited for our Special Forces. Without a jail, they are pushed to kill people that would they would otherwise like to capture."

You can read the letters below:

The Honorable Barack Obama
President of the United States of America
1600 Pennsylvania Ave. NW
Washington, DC 20500


Dear President Obama:


As you noted in a recent press conference, "the idea that we would still maintain forever a group of individuals who have not been tried - that is contrary to who we are, it is contrary to our interests, and it needs to stop." We agree, and believe you can take concrete steps to significantly reduce the inmate population at Guantanamo Bay.
In particular, we encourage your Administration to:
·         Use the certification and waiver provisions in the fiscal year (FY) 2013 National Defense Authorization Act to transfer detainees from Guantanamo, beginning with the reported 86 detainees that have already been cleared for transfer; and
·         End your administration's self-imposed ban on transfers to Yemen and work with the government of Yemen to put in place appropriate security and rehabilitation measures.

As you very well know, facing the possibility of indefinite detention without a fair trial, the majority of Guantanamo's inmate population is now on hunger strike. Instead of resolving their legal status, your Administration has chosen to forcibly feed some of the detainees, a process that requires a lubricated plastic tube to be inserted down a detainee's nose and into his stomach while he is being restrained. The American Medical Association has long held the position that physician participation in force-feeding violates the core ethical values of the medical profession.
While we recognize that Congress will need to play a role in assisting the effort to close Guantanamo, we believe that current law provides the Administration sufficient authority to take the above steps and to make significant progress toward reducing the number of detainees in Guantanamo.
Thank you for your consideration of this letter. The situation at Guantanamo has become a crisis, and it is urgent that your Administration renew its efforts, and fulfill its promise, to close the facility. We stand ready to work with you in this endeavor.

Sincerely,
James P. Moran

Smith Letter to President on GTMO May 21 2013

The Honorable Barack Obama
President of the United States
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, D.C. 20500

 

Dear Mr. President,

I write to express my strong support for your April 30th statement renewing your commitment to close the detention center at the Guantánamo Naval Base in Cuba.  I recognize the challenges facing you in closing Guantánamo, but it is necessary in order to restore America's standing as a nation that respects and adheres to the rule of law, including U.S. and international human rights and humanitarian law.

Closing the detention center at Guantánamo, once and for all, will require legislative, administrative, judicial, diplomatic and other measures to prosecute, with full respect for the right to due process, the individuals being held in detention, or to provide for their immediate release or transfer to a third country.  I regret that Congress has been part of the problem, not part of the solution, in resolving these matters in an efficient, judicious and secure manner.  There are, however, a number of actions that you and the executive branch can take to advance your commitment to close the detention facility, and I encourage you to do so.  These include:

  • Appointing someone at the White House to serve as your personal designee and "point person" on Guantánamo, who wakes up every day with the mandate to complete the expeditious transfer of detainees cleared of all charges to other countries, bring to trial those detainees who have been charged with crimes against the United States, and close the detention facility.
  • Transferring the 86 detainees who have been cleared by the U.S. government of all charges and determined not to be a threat to U.S. security to their countries of origin and/or third party countries so that they may be reunited with their families and restored to civilian life.
  • Demanding and ensuring that the practices and procedures for forced feeding used at Guantánamo detention facilities are the same as those used by the federal Bureau of U.S. Prisons, so that they comply with the highest standards of medical ethics and do not constitute any violation regarding the use of cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment.
  • Initiating prosecutions in U.S. federal courts against those detainees charged with crimes against the security of the United States and whose cases are most ready for prosecution and trial, so that examples of rule of law and due process may be established for these detainees in our civilian courts.

I do not make these suggestions lightly; I know that some may be more difficult than others to undertake, including from a political point of view.  But they are all doable, and they can all be initiated immediately and completed expeditiously. Some, such as completing the transfer of the 86 detainees cleared of all charges, may require lifting current self-imposed bans on transfers to Yemen; others, such as bringing cases ready for trial to U.S. federal civilian courts may require the use of a national security waiver. These actions are well within the capacity of your office and the offices of the U.S. Attorney General and Secretary of State.

I further recommend that attention be given to basic humanitarian issues related to long-term indefinite detention without charge that have disturbed, and sometimes inflamed, U.S. and international opinion about Guantánamo.  I strongly encourage you to determine how best the U.S. might provide appropriate reparations and psycho-social support to those 86 detainees in particular who have been cleared of all charges against the United States, and yet were held for more than a decade, isolated from their families and culture, and in a constant state of uncertainty about their future.  We have an opportunity not only to set the record straight, but an obligation to establish a high standard for their humane reinsertion back into civilian life and to mitigate any potential negative outcomes related to their release and return to their homelands or third party countries. I have great faith that our U.S. agencies, in consultation and partnership with the countries receiving these detainees, can determine appropriate reparations and reinsertion support, but I would also strongly encourage you to consult directly with the appropriate OAS, U.N., ICRC and non-governmental (NGO) experts on establishing these mechanisms.

Once again, Mr. President, I thank you for your renewed commitment to close the detention facility at Guantánamo Naval Base.  If I can be of any help or service in achieving this goal, please do not hesitate to call upon me.

Sincerely,

James P. McGovern
Member of Congress


 

The Cable

Rand Paul: My colleagues just voted to arm the allies of al Qaeda

Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) blasted members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Tuesday, which voted overwhelmingly to arm elements of the Syrian opposition in a bill co-sponsored by Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN). "This is an important moment," Paul said, addressing his Senate colleagues. "You will be funding, today, the allies of al Qaeda. It's an irony you cannot overcome."

The legislation, which would authorize the shipment of arms and military training to rebels "that have gone through a thorough vetting process," passed in a bipartisan 15-3 vote. Paul offered an amendment that would strike the bill's weapons provision, but it was rejected along with another Paul amendment ruling out the authorization of the use of military force in Syria. (Connecticut Democrat Chris Murphy was the only senator to join Paul in support of the weapons amendment.)

Paul's two amendments constituted his first legislative act to soften the Menendez-Corker bill, which earned the support of powerful lawmakers from Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) to Barbara Boxer (D-CA) to Marco Rubio (R-FL) -- all of whom rejected Paul's allegations. "I don't think any member of this committee would vote for anything we thought was going to arm al Qaeda," said Rubio. "Al Qaeda, unfortunately, is well-armed," added Menendez. "That is the present reality in Syria." 

The dispute centers on the issue of whether the United States could properly vet Syrian rebels so that weapons and body armor would not fall into the hands of extremist groups, such as the al Qaeda-aligned al-Nusra Front. The Pentagon's top brass has vacillated about whether it's logistically possible to keep track of weapons as they enter a conflict involving a complex mix of opposition groups, as the new bill would require.

Corker added that not arming rebel groups such as the more moderate Free Syrian Army would ensure the dominance of the better-equipped al-Nusra Front. Paul responded, saying, "It's impossible to know who our friends are ... I know everyone here wants to do the right thing, but I think it's a rush to war."

To get a sense of how adamant the committee is to authorize more aggressive intervention in Syria, an amendment offered by Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM) to limit the types of weapons delivered to rebels was forcefully rejected as well. "The senator from New Mexico wants to use shotguns against SCUD missiles," McCain said dismissively.

The bill now includes an amendment by Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA), that would "require the administration to impose sanctions on entities that provide surface-to-surface or surface-to-air missiles, like the SA20s or S300s, to the Assad regime," according to a press release -- a clear reference to Russia, which has vowed in recent weeks to proceed with sales of advanced missiles that would extend the range and sophistication of the Syrian regime's anti-aircraft systems.

The Menendez-Corker bill next moves to the Senate floor, but an aide to Menendez said it was uncertain when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, whose office did not respond to a request for comment, will take up the legislation.

Observers say the bill's chances of passing in its current form are slim, but it does increase the pressure on the administration to intervene more aggressively. As Andrew Tabler, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy noted earlier this month, "If you want to pressure the president into acting, it's a pretty good bill ...The last time the Hill moved on Syria was sanctions on Syrian oil in the summer of 2011. That pressured the president to move, and this could too."