Congress’ latest defense policy bill rejects the White House vision of moving Guantánamo’s last captives to the United States but doesn’t invest in new prison guard housing even as it makes it tougher to release cleared captives.
It also forbids the Pentagon from spending a cent on withdrawal from the U.S. Navy base in southeast Cuba, effectively answering Raúl Castro’s demand that President Barack Obama evacuate the outpost as part of normalization of diplomatic relations.
It has yet to be adopted by the full House and Senate.
Obama has threatened to veto the legislation because it uses emergency war funds to exceed Congress’ mandated spending caps, which critics call a budgeting gimmick.
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The 1,915-page version of the National Defense Authorization Act, unveiled jointly Tuesday by the House and Senate Armed Services Committees, illustrates the push-pull in Congress over whether to plan for Guantánamo prison operations in the long run. The legislation codifies the request by Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, for a comprehensive, unclassified Obama administration blueprint on closing the detention center currently holding 114 captives. It seeks specifications of proposed construction of sites where the captives might be held and endgame plans for each captive held at the base in Cuba.
At the same time, it ratchets up restrictions on releases of the prison’s remaining captives, who still cannot be moved to the United States for any reason. The new law, additionally, would require Defense Secretary Ash Carter to adopt a higher certification standard — demonstrating a national security imperative — before releasing a captive to another country.
The threshold would effectively halt releases with one exception: It allows captives to leave Guantánamo if a court orders it, meaning the Obama administration could orchestrate a release by ordering the Justice Department not to oppose a detainee’s habeas corpus petition.
The legislation also includes a section that does not allow the Department of Defense “to relinquish control of Guantánamo Bay to the Republic of Cuba,” something Castro demanded as recently as this week in his address to the United Nations General Assembly. Obama administration officials have said withdrawal from the 45-square-mile base is not currently up for discussion.
Perhaps in a reflection of uncertainty over the prison’s future, however, it does not include a $76 million housing complex that the House Armed Services Committee chairman had earlier added to draft legislation from the wish list of Marine Gen. John F. Kelly, commander of the Southern Command, who oversees prison operations.
Kelly has proposed building the housing — Southcom calls it a barracks; a Capitol Hill staffer who saw the plan described it as a “big dorm” — near a new $12 million cafeteria being built for the 2,000 or more troops and contractors assigned to the prison, mostly soldiers on nine-month rotations.
Last year, Congress funded the cafeteria and an $11.8 million detainee health clinic, both championed by Kelly, but rejected his proposal for a new $69 million prison for Guantánamo’s 14 former CIA captives, six of them awaiting death-penalty proceedings. Separately, Congress has funded a new $65 million base school for the children of troops and contractors who live there.
At Southern Command in Doral, Army Col. Lisa Garcia said the headquarters did not ask for the “barracks,” though added that it “would add to improving the quality of life and morale for our troops, which is one of Gen. Kelly’s top priorities.”
Neither the White House nor the Pentagon supported inclusion of the project in the House’s version of the policy bill earlier this year.
But Capitol Hill sources told the Herald earlier this year that Kelly had included the housing complex in a list of “unfunded requirements” he provided to the House Armed Services Committee earlier this year, which is how the chairman, Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, included it in his draft legislation. Tuesday’s version of the legislation removed that expenditure.