Prison remains open, operational
In the tug of war over the prison at Guantanamo Bay, the Republicans have prevailed.
President Barack Obama earned a Promise Broken for his pledge to close the prison, while congressional Republicans have fulfilled their promise to keep the facility open and running.
The fate of Guantanamo detainees, rounded up in other countries over the last decade as part of the war on terror, has been a political battle since Obama took office. He began his presidency vowing to close the facility and end the use of military commissions initiated under President George W. Bush. Obama advocated trying terrorism suspects in U.S. courts, but congressional Republicans have trumped him on both fronts.
Guantanamo, which occupies part of a naval base in Cuba, currently houses 169 detainees. The ACLU tracks both their numbers and their legal status. As of May 2012, the ACLU says, 87 men remain there despite having been cleared for release by the U.S. government, and another 46 are still there because they have been deemed too dangerous to release. The youngest prisoner is 13. The oldest is 98.
Republicans kept the promise by using limits on federal spending. In 2011, Congress passed the National Defense Authorization Act for FY 2011 which prohibited the use of funds to construct or modify U.S. prison to house detainees from Guantanamo. It also barred any spending on transferring detainees to the U.S. and put in place onerous requirements on transferring any detainees to another country. As we noted in our last update, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives used the power of the purse to keep the prisoners solely in Guantanamo.
Since then, Congress passed and Obama signed the National Defense Authorization Act for 2012, which kept all those restrictions in place for another year.
"The fact that I support this bill as a whole does not mean I agree with everything in it,” Obama said in a statement on Dec. 31, 2011. "I have signed this bill despite having serious reservations with certain provisions that regulate the detention, interrogation and prosecution of suspected terrorists.”
While the detainees remain in Guantanamo, they continue to face prosecutions through military commissions. The defense authorization bill, at one stage of debate, contained an amendment barring their access to U.S. courts. That provision didn't appear in the final version that became law, but the ban on federal funding accomplished the same end.
"The prohibition on using funds either to bring Guantanamo detainees to the U.S. or to construct or modify facilities to house them effectively prohibited bringing them (to the U.S.) for any reason,” said Scott Roehm, counsel for the Rule of Law Program at the Constitution Project, a bipartisan group that has called for shutting the prison.
Currently five people accused in the 9/11 attacks, including the alleged mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, are facing trial in Guantanamo. They have been arraigned on charges including conspiracy, murder, aircraft hijacking and terrorism.
The GOP pledged to keep the Guantanamo prison open, and to keep detainees' prosecutions in that facility, outside the U.S. Both elements have been fulfilled. We rate this a Promise Kept.
National Defense Authorization Act for FY 2011
National Defense Authorization Act for FY 2012
National Journal, "Obama Signs Defense Authorization Bill,” Dec. 31, 2011
American Civil Liberties Union, Guantanamo by the Numbers, accessed June 12, 2012
Interview with Scott Roehm, Constitution Project, June 12, 2012
Los Angeles Times, "Sept. 11 terrorism trial opens at Guantanamo,” May 5, 2012
The House votes to keep detainees in Guantanamo
In late 2009, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the Al-Qaida mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks, and four other Guantanamo detainees would be tried in federal court in New York City. This announcement was intended to fulfill a campaign promise by President Barack Obama to mitigate the use of the military tribunal system set up by the Bush administration in favor of trying terrorism suspects in civilian courts. President Bush came under a heavy criticism during his terms in office from civil rights proponents and congressional opponents, including Obama himself, for the institution of these military trials.
Congressional lawmakers similarly criticized the Obama administration's plan, citing national security implications if terrorist suspects were brought to the U.S. mainland. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who initially supported civilian trials, reversed his stance, arguing that the extra security costs and general disruption would be too burdensome on the city. A last ditch attempt at trying the suspects from a federal prison in the village of Otisville, N.Y. also fell through.
These realities, combined with congressional opposition, led the Obama administration to abandon its plan in April 2011 and opt to try Mohammed and others in the military tribunal system. The final straw came in the form of the National Defense Authorization Act for FY 2011, in which Congress prohibited the use of defense funds to transfer prisoners from Guantanamo to the United States.
Attorney General Eric Holder said the administration made the change so as not to delay prosecutions. "We must face a simple truth: those restrictions are unlikely to be repealed in the immediate future. And we simply cannot allow a trial to be delayed any longer for the victims of the 9/11 attacks or for their families who have waited nearly a decade for justice,” he said.
The House of Representatives, now under Republican control, wants to renew this ban for the next fiscal year. In July, the House passed the National Defense Authorization Act for FY 2012, by 336-87. Like its predecessor, the act would prohibit funds from being used to transfer Guantanamo detainees to the United States. The Senate version of the budget bill passed through the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee in June. The bill is still waiting for approval in the full Senate.
President Obama threatened to veto the House bill due to a number of items. Aside from restrictions on detainee transfers, the administration also objects to provisions that would weaken the executive's ability to carry out the new START Treaty and provisions that continue to fund an extra engine on the F-35 fighter jet -- an aspect of the project that the Obama administration wishes to cancel.
Through its power of the purse, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives is in the process of fulfilling its promise to try terrorism and imprison suspects solely in Guantanamo. The funding prohibition gives the Obama administration little choice but to use the military tribunal system -- or else not try the suspects at all. The restriction still needs to be passed through the Senate and survive Obama's veto threat, but for now we rate this promise as In the Works.
National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2012, H.R. 1540.
National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2012, S. 1253.
U.S. Senate Committee on Armed Services, press release, June 17, 2011.
USA Today, "N.Y. Mayor Bloomberg prefers terror trials be moved,” January 27, 2010.
The New York Times, "Village Doubts It Could Have Handled Terror Trial,” April 8, 2011.
White House Statement of Administration Policy on H.R. 1540 - National Defense Authorization Act for FY 2012. May 24, 2011.
ABC News, "In Reversal, Obama Orders Guantanamo Military Trial for 9/11 Mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed,” April 4, 2011.
The New York Times, "In Reversal, Military Trials for 9/11 Cases,” April 4, 2011.
Reuters, "White House criticizes House defense spending bill,” June 23, 2011.
USA Today, "House passes $649B defense spending bill,” July 8, 2011.
The New York Times, "Senate Offers Revised Rules for Suspects of Terrorism,” June 23, 2011.