The NDAA and the Struggle to Close Guantanamo

In 2008 President Obama campaigned on a pledge to close the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay. In his first week on the job the President signed an Executive Order calling for the prison’s swift closure. However, today the prison at Guantanamo remains in operation and continues to hold 166 detainees. Although the issue went largely unmentioned in the 2012 campaign, President Obama did say in an interview on The Daily Show that failing to close Guantanamo was a major regret of his first term and would be a renewed goal after the election. We at the RAC, and the broader anti-torture/civil liberties community, hope to hold the President to his word in the coming weeks as the Senate debates the National Defense Authorization Act.

President Obama’s attempts to close Guantanamo have been met with resolute opposition from Congress.  Two provisions have been included in the NDAA over the last several years, which have made the prison’s closure nearly impossible. The first, known as transfer restrictions, prohibits the government from transferring anyone from Guantanamo to the United States for trial. The second, known as certification requirements, says that any country that the U.S. might wish to transfer a prisoner to for trial must meet very strict requirements, effectively preventing the transfer of prisoners to most countries around the world.

The prison at Guantanamo Bay, and the policies of indefinite detention and torture that the prison’s existence represents, is a smirch on the U.S.’s human rights record. The unconscionable mistreatment of prisoners has been repeatedly documented in Guantanamo.  In a terrifying new practice of indefinite detention, many of these detainees have been held for years without being formally charged with a crime or brought to trial. Those who have stood trial were forced to do so in a military tribunal with severely restricted rights. A significant number of detainees who have already been tried and cleared for transfer remain in Guantanamo due to these restrictions.

While this treatment of detainees has always been justified with the excuse of “national security,” increasingly experts contend that Guantanamo more often threatens our national security than strengthens it. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell has argued that Guantanamo strengthens the position of our enemies, stating that he thinks “Guantanamo has cost us a lot over the years in terms of our standing in the world and the way in which despots have hidden behind what we have at Guantanamo to justify their own– their own positions… And so I think we ought to remove this incentive that exists in the presence of Guantanamo to encourage people and to give radicals an opportunity to say, you see, this is what America is all about.”

The restrictions discussed above have been included in the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act now being considered in Congress. If they become law, they would prevent the closure of Guantanamo for yet another year. The NDAA, including these restrictions, passed the House of Representatives in May. The Senate is debating the bill this week and the current version includes these restrictions. Yet there is still an opportunity to amend and improve the bill, allowing the Guantanamo prison to be closed.

Now is the time to take action. The Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism joined the ACLU, Human Rights Watch, the National Religious Campaign Against Torture and several other groups in a letter to the President urging him not to sign legislation that would prevent the closure of Guantanamo and to call on Congress to remove these restrictions from the NDAA. Add your voice to that call today! While the Senate debates the NDAA in the coming days, contact your representatives and tell them to let the President close Guantanamo now!


Image courtesy of the Washington Post