Defense bill adds restrictions on transfers from Guantánamo

Scaffolding surrounds the U.S. Capitol Building Dome before sunrise in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, Dec. 10, 2014.
Scaffolding surrounds the U.S. Capitol Building Dome before sunrise in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, Dec. 10, 2014. BLOOMBERG

Republican proposals to block most releases from Guantánamo cleared the House Armed Services Committee early Thursday despite a brief effort by Democrats to lift new restrictions that would also freeze portions of the Pentagon budget until the Obama administration provides more details on last year’s exchange of Taliban prisoners for POW Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.

In addition, the committee inserted language into its draft 2016 National Defense Authorization Act legislation that would forbid the White House from giving up its lease on the U.S. Navy base in southeast Cuba.

“It may not be closed or abandoned,” according to the legislation, sponsored by Texas Republican Rep. K. Michael Conaway, which invoked recent testimony by Marine Gen. John Kelly of the Southern Command that the outpost is “indispensible.” It would also requires the Southcom commander to submit a report to Congress on the “strategic implications” of the base, including a description of “personnel, resources and base operations.”

The Cuban government wants the U.S. to withdraw from the base it leases for $4,085 a year — paying with a check a Pentagon spokesman says Cuba doesn’t cash. The White House says the future of base is not part of the ongoing diplomatic dialogue to normalize relations with Cuba.

The Guantánamo legislation will be taken up by the full House next month as part of the overarching $612 billion Defense policy bill.

“There are four provisions in the bill that basically make it impossible to close Guantánamo,” said the senior Democrat, Rep. Adam Smith of Washington, in a failed bid to get some flexibility at about 2 a.m. in the final hours of a marathon markup of the bill that began at 10 a.m. Wednesday.

The restrictions continue to block the transfer of any of the last 122 detainees to U.S. soil, for any reason, and forbids their transfer to more than a dozen other “combat zone” countries as well, through an insertion by the GOP chairman, Texas Rep. Mac Thornberry, that draws the definition from places where U.S. troops on deployment get tax breaks.

The list includes places the White House has sent cleared detainees in the past, including Afghanistan, Egypt, Oman and Saudi Arabia.

A few Democrats made a bid to lift the embargo on transfers to the United States by invoking an economics argument. Rep. Susan Davis, D-Calif., said the per detainee cost at Guantánamo is up to $3.3 million a year compared to $70,000 for a prisoner at the federal SuperMax prison in Florence, Colo.

But Republicans said it was a price Americans were willing to pay. “If these terrorists come into your community you have put a target on every business there, every school division there and everything else,” said Rep. J. Randy Forbes, R-Va. “It’s foolish for us to keep rehashing this.”

In addition, he said there was sound legal reasoning to keep the captives at Guantánamo. “Once they touch U.S. soil, they pick up constitutional rights that they do not have today.”

Another new portion of the draft legislation would freeze $485 million of Defense Secretary Ash Carter’s budget, 25 percent, until the Pentagon provides greater transparency on behind-the-scenes discussions prior to the Bergdahl trade.

Members of the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee want to see advice the Justice Department wrote on the lawfulness of Obama’s using his executive authority to release five Afghan Taliban captives from Guantánamo to Qatar May 31 in the Bergdahl trade, according to a Hill staffer who spoke on background. Subcommittee members also want the administration to un-redact intelligence information about the five men who were let go without benefit of a Periodic Review Board evaluation.

The leading Democrat on the subcommittee, Rep. Jackie Speier of California, said she, too, believes the White House breached an obligation to give Congress 30 days notice in advance of the release. But she called the proposed 25 percent budget freeze “really irresponsible” and like taking “a hatchet” to the budget.

Pentagon officials have been cooperating with the committee, she said, adding that it had already taken 11 depositions and received 3,600 pages of documents, less than 1 percent of which was redacted.

The legislation also approved spending $76 million on a new housing project for about 500 of the prison guards and other troops on the detention center’s more than 2,000-member staff of civilians and soldiers.

The Pentagon and White House had rejected the new construction sought by Southcom’s Kelly. But the committee pulled it off a list of unfunded projects that the general had sent them, at the request of the chairman, Thornberry.

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Marine faces hazing charges

A Marine sergeant accused of humiliating and physically abusing those under his command — ordering one to punch another hard enough to make him urinate blood — is facing a court-martial in Virginia.

Staff Sgt. Dustin A. Barker of Scott, Ky., is accused of hazing Marines at the U.S. Navy base in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, in 2013, the year he joined the Norfolk-based Marine Corps Security Forces Regiment, an anti-terrorism and security force that deploys to hot spots around the world. He also faces charges over alleged incidents in Virginia.

Barker’s general court-martial was scheduled to start at Naval Station Norfolk on Monday.

Associated Press