As President Barack Obama continues to whittle down the number of detainees at Guantanamo Bay before he leaves office, Congress is once again throwing up a familiar roadblock — one the White House has said it will circumvent.
Twenty detainees at Guantanamo have been cleared for release, but Republican Rep. Jackie Walorski believes they should continue to be held indefinitely. Last May, she introduced a bill that would prohibit the federal government from using any funds to transfer detainees until January 1, or until the enactment of the annual defense spending bill, which was fast-tracked for a vote this week after the Pentagon transferred 15 Gitmo detainees to the United Arab Emirates in August.
"The terrorist detainees remaining in Guantanamo Bay are the worst of the worst, and the administration's plan to release an additional 20 detainees this year in an effort to fulfill a campaign promise puts American lives at risk. It's time for the House to act to protect our national security by blocking these reckless transfers," Walorski said in a statement.
Many of the detainees who have been cleared for release never set foot on a battlefield, and most were sold to the US for bounties, according to military documents.
On Tuesday, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) advised the White House to veto the defense-spending bill if it crosses Obama's desk.
"This bill represents an effort not only to extend the facility's operation — as have the other unwarranted legislative restrictions on transfers — but to bring to a standstill the substantial progress the administration has made in safely and securely reducing the facility's population," the OMB said.
Major General Michael R. Lehnert, the first commanding officer at Guantanamo, sent a letter to Congress on Tuesday urging lawmakers to reject Walorski's bill.
"By second-guessing the decisions of career national security professionals and keeping Guantanamo open, the bill would undermine US national security at a time when it is critical to do everything in our power to effectively counter international terrorism," Lehnert wrote.
Congress has repeatedly used the power of the purse in an attempt to thwart Obama's efforts to shutter Guantanamo. For the past seven years, lawmakers have included Guantanamo inmate transfer restrictions in the defense spending bill, known as the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). When signing the bill into law, Obama has added a caveat that says certain restrictions might be unconstitutional and infringe upon his executive authority. He is set to do so again.
Republicans in the Senate, notably Sen. Kelly Ayotte, have also repeatedly introduced failed legislation aimed at preventing Obama from transferring cleared detainees.
A total of 61 detainees remain at Guantanamo. US taxpayers are paying about $7 million a year to house the captives, and $445 million to operate the detention facility.
The president still believes he can close the notorious detention center before he leaves office, but doing so would require transferring at least some of the remaining prisoners to the US. Such a move would require congressional approval, making it almost impossible. Still, during a summit with Southeast Asian officials in Laos this month, Obama said he's not ready to "concede" that Guantanamo will remain open.
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