GOP’s first draft of defense policy could stifle Guantánamo transfers

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, questions Defense Secretary Ash Carter as he testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, March 18,2015.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, questions Defense Secretary Ash Carter as he testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, March 18,2015. ASSOC IATED PRESS

Call it Bowe Bergdahl swap blow back: The House Armed Services Committee chairman’s proposed 2015 defense policy bill seeks to stifle the release of Guantánamo captives, require new accounting of recidivism and build new housing for prison guards.

The draft National Defense Authorization Act, released Monday, is the first drawn up under the chairmanship of Republican Texas Rep. Mac Thornberry, who has criticized the lack of Obama administration foresight in trying to close the detention center in southeast Cuba now holding 122 captives.

The committee’s top Democrat, Rep. Adam Smith of Washington issued a statement Monday calling the Guantánamo measures “a political position driving bad policy.” He wants all the Guantánamo provisions struck from the final version.

The draft made clear that some of the restrictions were in response to last year's exchange of five Afghan Taliban prisoners for Bergdahl — the former prisoner-of-war now facing charges of having deserted in Afghanistan — and that some were in response to a flurry of transfers from Guantánamo that followed.

One proposed provision would reinstate previous certification requirements on releases or transfers that had previously paralyzed the Pentagon’s ability to let any detainee go. It also forbids the transfer to a “country or entity” that had a confirmed instance of an earlier freed Guantánamo detainee engaging in terrorism. The current NDAA, as the legislation is called, loosened restrictions.

The committee meets Wednesday to debate the chairman’s proposal.

Other parts of Thornberry’s proposed bill, called “the chairman’s mark,” would:

▪ Expand a reporting requirement to notify Congress, former detainee by former detainee, about all contacts each released captive has had with “individuals known or suspected to be associated with a foreign terrorist group.”

▪ Require the administration to submit a quarterly report timeline that crunches the time between each captive’s departure from Guantánamo and the date that U.S. intelligence first suspected or confirmed his “terrorist activities” — and come up with an average across the Bush and Obama administrations of how long it takes for a freed captive to have real or suspected contact with terrorism.

▪ Prohibit the transfer of any of the last 122 detainees at Guantánamo to “a combat zone,” as defined by where troops on deployment get tax breaks. The list includes places where detainees have been sent in the past, including Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Afghanistan and Uzbekistan, and places that have not resettled cleared detainees, including the Philippines, Serbia and Israel.

▪ Retain a prohibition on the transfer of Guantánamo detainees to the United States or U.S. territories.

▪ Forbid the Obama administration from purchasing or preparing a future U.S. military detention site for Guantánamo prisoners.

▪ Increase restrictions on a 30-day notification requirement, with language that invokes a Government Accountability Office report and admonishes the White House for failing to provide the statutory notice before the release of the Taliban to Qatar in the trade for Bergdahl.

Another clause would withhold 25 percent of all 2016 Defense Department funding until the Pentagon and Justice Departments give Congress emails about discussion before the Bergdahl deal — something members of Congress have sought for some time — as well as intelligence documents about the five men who were traded.

The committee’s minority leader’s statement called the provisions an attempt to further a “perilous policy” by the majority and allow “the excessively expensive detention facility at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, to persist.”

Human Rights First, a legal group that advocates closure of the prison camps and federal trials rather than military commissions, urged Congress to reject the new restriction as “onerous and unnecessary.”

Thornberry’s bill authorizes $515 billion in spending for national defense and an additional $89.2 billion for war funding — including a special $76 million line item to build new housing for an undisclosed number of the more than 2,000 temporary prison staff members that mostly do year or shorter tours at the remote base in Cuba.

Marine Gen. John F. Kelly, commander of the U.S. Southern Command, who has oversight of the prison, championed the housing, described by a Capitol Hill staffer as a “big dorm.” Southcom declined to elaborate on the construction vision. Kelly had first proposed it to Obama administration and Department of Defense budget writers, who rejected it, then included it in a list Thornberry requested of projects that the White House and Pentagon rejected.

An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated who Rep. Thornberry replaced at the committee. It was GOP Rep. Buck McKeon, and has been corrected.

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