Late Thursday night the Senate finally passed the Defense Bill on a rare 84-15 vote and sent it to President Obama for signature. One thing that has received little attention is a provision, requested by the Obama Administration, which will lift the Congressional ban on sending innocent detainees back home.
There are 158 detainees remaining in Guantanamo. About half of these have been cleared for transfer or release since 2009, but they were blocked from going home because of congressional restrictions. It costs the taxpayers of the United States $2.5 million per prisoner per year to keep these detainees locked up. This amounts to about $395,000,000 a year—half of that to detain innocent men.
President Obama has wanted to close Guantanamo since he ran for office in 2008 against John McCain, who also wanted to see it closed. The man who created Guantanamo in the first place, George W. Bush, also agreed in 2008, it was time to close it down. The General who was the first commander of the prison said it should never have been opened to begin with.
So why is it still open? Congress passed a bill in 2009 blocking the president from closing it or moving any of the prisoners to the U.S. or other countries.
In his State of the Union Address in January, the president asked Congress to remove restrictions. Obama said that keeping Guantanamo open hurt America's moral standing and that it was "not sustainable ... to keep over 100 individuals in a no-man's land in perpetuity."
The Defense Bill will allow the administration to move most of those already cleared for release out. This will reduce the cost to taxpayers, and make it politically easier to get Congress to finally allow the president to close the concentration camp.
The Defense Bill lifted constraints requiring the U.S. defense secretary to "certify" that the country where an inmate was being sent was not "facing a threat that is likely to substantially affect its ability to exercise control over the individual." This all but ruled out Yemen, the home country of the largest group of Guantanamo detainees. It also lifted the ban that made it difficult to release Syrian detainees.
The Military Tribunals at Guantanamo found that there was no evidence to detain half these prisoners determining they were not terrorists and had no role in 9/11. The upshot, we are holding innocent men for nothing. The others could be tried in U.S. courts and sent to federal prisons if found guilty. The president wanted to try them in the federal court in New York which has successfully convicted scores of high profile terrorists, but Congress blocked him.
The organization Human Rights First hailed the vote as "a new foundation for bringing the number of Guantanamo detainees down to zero."
"We do not expect the administration to close Guantanamo tomorrow," the group said. "It will be a methodical process of whittling down the detainee population as the administration negotiates appropriate security assurances from host nations."
The administration is negotiating agreements with several nations to take the detainees, and monitor them to insure that they will not seek revenge for their immoral detention by joining a terrorist organization.
Guantanamo Bay will go down as one of the biggest stains on our history. As the president said in his State of the Unions address, Guantanamo takes away any moral authority we have to criticize the human rights violations of other nations like China, Iran, North Korea, or Russia. Congress has done some very bad things since Obama was elected. This will rank high on the list. At least they may be trying to wiggle out of it albeit one prisoner at a time.