Future of Gitmo to Take Center Stage Later This Month

With much attention in recent weeks focused on the NSA collection activities or the U.S. drone program, it can be easy to allow other important national security issues to become overshadowed.  But as Megan Scully at Congressional Quarterly reported yesterday (note: the CQ article is behind a paywall), it appears detention at the U.S. facility at Guantánamo Bay will likely return to the center stage later this month as the full Senate begins debate on the NDAA:

“The annual Pentagon policy measure (S 1197) includes language from Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., that would provide the president with new flexibility to transfer detainees from Guantánamo, considered by the Obama administration and other advocates for closure to be a blight on the United States’ reputation abroad.”

On the substance of the Levin proposal:

 “[T]he committee-endorsed bill would allow the Defense Department to transfer detainees to the United States for detention or trial if the secretary determines that doing so is in the national security interests of the United States and that any public safety issues have been addressed. It also would authorize the temporary transfer of detainees to Defense Department medical facilities in the United States if necessary to prevent death or significant harm to the detainee’s health.

In addition, Levin’s language would allow the United States to transfer prisoners at Guantánamo to other countries if they are no longer considered a threat to United States national security, the transfer is pursuant to a court order and the detainee has been tried and acquitted or convicted and has completed his sentence.

Stephen Vladeck, a law professor at American University, predicted the vote would be a close one and suggested that Levin could help make his case by assuring his colleagues that his goal is not to end detention of terrorism suspects, but rather is simply to close the prison.

Vladeck said the Guantánamo issue is often cast politically as being about detention. ‘There’s no reason why that can only happen at Guantánamo,’ he added.”

Perhaps most importantly, Scully notes that “for the first time, the odds may be in favor of those who want to begin the slow process of closing the prison.”

“Levin’s language is aimed at ultimately closing down Guantánamo but does not explicitly do so. Nonetheless, it has received strong public endorsement from two influential liberal Democrats, Sens. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois and Dianne Feinstein of California, which could discourage any rear-guard effort from the left to strengthen the language in the bill . . . Republicans are readying amendments to strip out or at least alter Levin’s language in the bill . . . [b]ut they face the significant hurdle of needing 60 votes to force removal of the language”

. . .

“Helping Levin may be general fatigue in Congress over Guantánamo, which has been debated for over a decade. Meanwhile, other issues such as NSA surveillance, Syria, Iran, cybersecurity and sexual assault — all of which will likely play big roles during floor debate — could cast senators’ attention elsewhere.”

Regardless though, as Scully notes in her closing, “the bill still must be negotiated with the Republican-led House, where previous efforts to shutter Guantánamo have been dead on arrival.”  Therefore, the likelihood that will be closed anytime soon could be small.

The article is a great overview of where things currently stand in Congress regarding Guantánamo and the NDAA. I recommend reading the article in its entirety, which you can find (behind a paywall) on CQ. 

About the Author(s)

Thomas Earnest

Former Managing Editor of Just Security (2013-14) Follow him on Twitter (@thomasdearnest).