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House GOP defense bill blocks Gitmo closing

Jun. 3, 2013 - 02:39PM   |  
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WASHINGTON — Rebuffing President Obama’s latest plea, House Republicans on Monday proposed keeping open the military-run prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, by barring the administration from transferring its terror suspects to the United States or a foreign country such as Yemen.

The provisions dealing with the fate of the remaining 166 prisoners are part of a defense policy bill drafted by Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif. The chairman released the bill Monday, two days before Republicans and Democrats on the committee will vote on the measure.

The final bill is likely to include additional provisions addressing the epidemic of sexual assaults in the military, missile defense and weapons programs, with most reflecting the will of Republicans who control the House. The full chamber is expected to vote on the bill this summer and then work out differences when the Democratic-run Senate passes its version.

McKeon’s legislation would block the U.S. from spending $2.6 billion to train and equip Afghan security forces until the Defense and State departments have certified to Congress that the two countries have a bilateral security agreement governing the presence of U.S. forces there after the current combat mission ends in 2014.

McKeon’s bill also urges the Obama administration to “fully consider all courses of action” to remove President Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime from power. The legislation does not endorse providing weapons to the rebel forces in Syria, as the Senate Foreign Relations Committee did last month.

Less than two weeks ago, Obama renewed his 2008 campaign promise to close the Guantanamo prison. He argued that the indefinite detentions with little prospect of charges or a trial flouts the rule of law and said terrorists have used the naval detention center as a recruiting tool.

“Given my administration’s relentless pursuit of al-Qaida’s leadership, there is no justification beyond politics for Congress to prevent us from closing a facility that should never have been opened,” Obama said May 23 in a speech at the National Defense University.

Obama lifted the moratorium on transferring prisoners to Yemen and said their status would be reviewed on a case-by-case basis. In Yemen this past weekend, officials said they were moving ahead on a facility to house any transfers from Guantanamo.

“To the greatest extent possible, we will transfer detainees who have been cleared to go to other countries. Where appropriate, we will bring terrorists to justice in our courts and military justice system. And we will insist that judicial review be available for every detainee,” the president said.

Republicans and several Democrats have repeatedly stymied the president’s past efforts to close Guantanamo or transfer prisoners.

McKeon has said he is open to a proposal to close Guantanamo, but like other Republicans has criticized the White House for lacking a workable plan for what to do with the detainees there and where terrorists captured in the future would be housed.

The bill would keep the naval detention center open by prohibiting the Defense Department from spending any money to construct or modify facilities in the United States to house terror suspects from Guantanamo. The restriction would apply from the bill’s enactment through 2014.

It also would bar the Pentagon from spending any money to transfer prisoners to the United States or a foreign country. The bill provides a waiver, but the Defense Department would have to make several certifications to Congress.

Although Obama has pressed to close Guantanamo, the Pentagon in its latest budget request is seeking $450 million for it, including millions for upgrading the temporary facility and $40 million for a fiber optic cable. Past budgets have reflected the Washington contradiction of Obama waging a political fight to shutter the facility while the military calculates the financial requirements to keep the installation operating.

In his speech, Obama said Guantanamo makes no sense in a time of deficit-driven budget cuts as the United States spends $150 million each year on 166 prisoners — almost $1 million per prisoner.

McKeon’s bill says the Pentagon can spend money to upgrade Guantanamo, including $247.4 million for military construction.

The bulk of the money will pay for improvements to the barracks used by the American guard forces at Guantanamo and the prison facilities where the detainees are housed. Gen. John Kelly, the top U.S. commander in South and Central America, told the Armed Services Committee in March that the living conditions for U.S. personnel at the base were “pretty questionable” because the buildings were designed as temporary structures and never intended to last as long as they have.

Senior American and Afghan officials continue to negotiate the parameters of the bilateral security agreement. The pact spells out Washington’s commitment to Afghanistan over the next decade as well as its expectations of Kabul, including free and fair presidential elections next year, pledges to fight corruption, improve efficiency and protect human rights, including women’s rights.

In addition to putting a hold on the security forces’ money until the agreement is certified, McKeon’s legislation requires that the agreement protect U.S. military and civilian personnel and contractors from having to pay any Afghan tax related to efforts to carry out missions in Afghanistan.

The Armed Services Committee has complained previously about the Afghan government’s practice of taxing U.S. companies involved in America’s multibillion-dollar effort to rebuild the war-torn nation. McKeon’s bill says it is “illegal” to tax U.S. assistance.

The security agreement also must mandate that the U.S. has exclusive jurisdiction over American armed forces in Afghanistan, according to the legislation.

On Syria, the House bill underscores concerns among lawmakers that they don’t know enough about what resources and other assets would be required should the U.S. take military action in Syria.

The Obama administration has provided millions of dollars in humanitarian assistance to Syria but has been reluctant to arm the rebels or launch military strikes despite recent evidence that Assad used chemical weapons on his people.

“Events in Syria threaten the vital national security interests of the United States; however, the committee remains concerned that it does not have a comprehensive understanding of the resources required for certain courses of action that could shape the outcome of the conflict in Syria,” McKeon’s bill reads.

The measure directs Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to provide committee members with a briefing by Sept. 1 on what would be required to carry out a variety of possible military actions against Syria.

Potential military scenarios include conducting air strikes against Syrian airfields to keep al-Assad from deploying aircraft, establishing a no-fly zone over western Syria and arming the opposition Free Syrian Army with heavy military equipment to change the military balance on the ground.

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