A Democratic-led effort in the House of Representatives to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility is facing ridicule from Republicans, who have expressed opposition to the plan.
The Guantanamo Bay detention facility is a U.S territory in Cuba that came into existence in January 2002 under President George W. Bush in the early days of the so-called “War on Terror.”
A thousand Marines from Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, North Carolina, were scrambled across the Gulf of Mexico to quickly build the facility as a place to hold alleged terrorists awaiting trial in the United States or before a military tribunal.
Guantanamo Bay has been controversial since it was founded in 2002, as were the Iraq War, begun under the false pretense of the presence of weapons of mass destruction, and the Afghanistan War, in which the United States tried and fail to unroot the Taliban terrorist organization which has since taken over the nation.
Now, House Democrats are making another largely symbolic push to close the facility, which houses some of the most dangerous terrorists captured overseas. After over 20 years in existence, the facility now houses only 39 detainees.
A provision in the Democrats’ draft of a bill to fund the Department of Defense through fiscal year 2023, which has passed the Democrat-held House Appropriations Committee, would close the detention center for good.
The provision reads simply, “None of the funds appropriated or otherwise made available by this Act may be used to operate the detention facility at United States Naval Station, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, after September 30, 2023.”
No Money For Guantanamo
House Appropriations Chair Betty McCollum (D-Minn.) defended the measure in a statement to The Hill.
Currently, the United States spends about $540 million of taxpayer money on the facility annually, McCollum said, adding that it would be better used elsewhere.
“I’m going to work hard in conference committee,” McCollum said. “It’s not a good use of taxpayers’ money, and if we need more money for defense, it should go to things that are going to make a difference in our national security.”
In a July 5 tweet, Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) echoed the sentiment that Guantanamo Bay doesn’t add to national security.
“Guantanamo Bay does not protect our nation,” Maloney wrote. “We must finally close it down as part of this year’s [military spending bill].”
However, the bill does not make clear what would be done with these detainees, who are largely high-ranking terrorist leaders—presumptively meaning that they would be transported to the United States for detention.
Keeping these inmates out of the United States has long been a priority for Republicans.
In the past two years, separate bills have been introduced by Reps. Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.), Pat Fallon (R-Texas), Mike Turner (R-Ohio), and Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.), in addition to one offered to the Senate by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), that would bar the federal government from using congressional appropriations to fund the transfer of Guantanamo Bay detainees.
“Terrorists should never be allowed to step foot on American soil,” Boebert said after introducing one of the latest variations of this type of bill.
“Democrats are calling for terrorists to be released from Guantanamo,” she continued. “We should keep these terrorists right where they belong: behind bars and out of America. While Biden was vice president, the Obama regime released 196 terrorists from Guantanamo. Unsurprisingly, many of those individuals have returned to terrorism, killing American soldiers and civilians.”
“After Biden’s disastrous Afghanistan failure, I think the country has had enough of his soft-on-terrorism strategy,” she added.
Because Democrats hold 50 seats in the Senate, at least 10 Republicans would need to sign onto the provision for it to pass as part of the larger package, assuming that all 50 Democrats support the measure.
This, according to members of both parties, is unlikely to happen.
Retired Major General Wants Gitmo Closed
“[Democrats] have such slim majorities right now,” Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) told The Hill. “It’s difficult for them to do anything … so, getting something that controversial done is just, as a practical matter, not going to happen.”
Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, seemed to agree, telling reporters, “I’m sure it’s not going to happen.”
“No rational person’s going to support that,” Inhofe added. “It’s an absolutely vital institution.”
Even Democrats who support the measure have admitted it’s a long shot.
“We should’ve closed it years ago,” said Senate Appropriations Committee Chairmam Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). “I agreed with President Bush on that. I agreed with President Obama. I would vote for anything to close Guantanamo Bay. [But] you have to have the votes. And we’ve tried before, and they haven’t been able to get it.”
Some military leaders have expressed similar sentiments as Democrats, saying that the hasty construction of the facility and its common practices in contravention of the Geneva Conventions were better for policymakers than for the military servicemembers who had to build and maintain the facility.
“The speed of Guantanamo’s creation and the urgency to gain information had bad consequences,” Retired Maj. Gen. Michael Lehnert, who oversaw the construction of the facility, told Congress in his December 2021 testimony about the issue.
“The legal ambiguities that make Guantanamo an attractive choice for some policy makers sets up extraordinary challenges for the soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines who must execute these policies,” Lehnert said. “The subsequent decision to subject detainees to so-called ‘enhanced interrogation techniques,’ and to avoid application of the Geneva Conventions except when it suited us, cost us international support and aided our enemies.”
Closing Gitmo Long Promised by Democrats
Democrats have long wanted to shutter the detention facility for good.
In 2008, then-presidential candidate Barack Obama made closing Guantanamo Bay one of the pivotal issues of his foreign policy platform, and he also promised to bring troops home from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But eight years later, Obama left office with Guantanamo Bay still open and several military conflicts still ongoing.
During his 2020 presidential campaign, President Joe Biden made the same promise—and has had little more success than Obama in fulfilling that promise.
In August 2021, 75 House Democrats penned a letter to Biden expressing frustration with the lack of progress toward closing the facility and encouraging Biden to fulfill the promises he made on the campaign trail.
“We write in strong support of your stated goal to close the prison,” the coalition of Democrats wrote.
“We share your belief that after nearly two decades and tremendous expense, it is time to close the prison and seek prompt resolutions for the cases of the remaining detainees,” the letter continued. “We ask that as you take the steps necessary to finally closing the prison, you act immediately to further reduce its population, ensure that the remaining detainees are treated humanely, and increase the transparency of military commission proceedings at the Guantanamo detention facility.”
In the letter, Democrats decried the facility as a “fundamental betrayal of our values and our commitment as a country to the rule of law.”
However, without the support of the Senate, Congress will not be able to put an end to the facility for good, and GOP member comments indicate that this controversial provision is likely to be struck from the draft of the bill approved by the House Appropriations Committee.