Bill Could Delay Efforts To Close Guantanamo Prison

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Republicans in the House have proposed new legislation that would tie the Obama administration's hands on detainee issues by peppering the defense authorization bill with amendments. The legislation complicates once again the efforts to shutter the facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and is leaving progressive groups and legal experts alike predicting that the prison may not close at all during the remainder of the president's term.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

With the ongoing oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and continued violence in Afghanistan and Iraq, one problem on President Obama's plate that we haven't heard much about lately is what to do with the detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

But that does not mean Mr. Obama is any closer to making good on his promise to close the prison, as NPR's Carrie Johnson reports.

CARRIE JOHNSON: White House adviser John Brennan renewed a commitment to shutter the prison last week.

Mr. JOHN BRENNAN (Deputy National Security Adviser, Homeland Security and Counterterrorism): Fidelity to our values and to deny violent extremists one of their most potent recruitment tools is why the president ordered that the prison at Guantanamo Bay be closed and that we bring detainees to justice.

JOHNSON: But at the same time Brennan delivered his message, cool political winds were blowing on Capitol Hill. Members of Congress from both parties refused to grant the administration's request for money. The White House wanted funds to transfer detainees onto American soil.

Virginia Republican Frank Wolf says he fears the transfer out of Guantanamo could come back to hurt the U.S. He supports the ban.

Representative FRANK WOLF (Republican, Virginia): A number of the people who have served in Guantanamo and who have been released have gone back and have killed people.

JOHNSON: Wolf is one of many members of Congress who wants more information about the 181 men who remain at the prison. Lawmakers are forcing the administration to do a report on the issue.

Virginia Sloan is president of the Constitution Project. Her group wants Guantanamo closed now.

Ms. VIRGINIA SLOAN (President, Constitution Project): Well, to the extent that the Obama administration is trying to do the right thing on closing Guantanamo and related issues, Congress is making it very difficult by tying its hands on a number of fronts.

JOHNSON: Law Professor Matthew Waxman puts it this way:

Professor MATTHEW WAXMAN (Law): I think right now I would describe detention policy as sort of suspended in place.

JOHNSON: So far, the Obama administration has transferred 59 detainees out of Cuba, but they're leaving in drips, like a leaky faucet, instead of a steady stream. Federal officials say they don't expect any big developments before the midterm elections.

Charles Stimson worked on detainee issues in the Bush years, and he says Gitmo will cast a shadow for the rest of Obama's term.

Mr. CHARLES STIMSON: It will be not this year because of politics. It may not be possible next year, especially if the Republicans gain control of the House, and then you're setting up 2012 timeframe when it's a presidential election year and that may come politically unsustainable as well. So, it may not close for years.

JOHNSON: But a recent court decision may buy the Obama administration more time. An appeals court gave the administration some leeway when it comes to detainees in Afghanistan. The court ruled that three detainees at the Bagram Air Base don't have the right to test their detention in American courts.

That's because, the court said, Afghanistan is still a war zone. The decision left open the prospect that Bagram could become the next Guantanamo. But administration officials say they won't transfer detainees from Gitmo all the way to Afghanistan.

Benjamin Wittes is a scholar at the Brookings Institution. He sums up Obama's situation this way:

Mr. BENJAMIN WITTES (Scholar, Brookings Institution): The Obama administration talks about it as a national security imperative to close but they have really lost site of any kind of timeframe in which to get it done.

JOHNSON: A newly issued Justice Department report finds that most of the men at Guantanamo are low-level fighters, men with few connections to deadly plots. But they happen to be scooped in the first wave of U.S. military action, and they happen to remain behind bars eight years after their capture.

Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

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