It now appears that the government is taking steps toward lightening the burden on Guantanamo Bay, and perhaps even closing it. Yesterday, The New York Times reported that the Senate Armed Services Committee approved the National Defense Authorization Act for 2014. The bill will lift a ban on the transfer of detainees to the United States for the purpose of prosecution. The bill also pertains to transferring detainees for medical reasons, or even for continued detention in American prisons.
Since 2011, the U.S. Secretary of Defense has been required to certify that a list of conditions have been met before a detainee could be transferred. Most of the conditions were extra security measures that essentially stopped the government from even attempting transfers, even for low-security risk detainees. Under the new bill, the checklist would be done away with and the Secretary of Defense would only need to certify that the transfer would be in the best interest of national security. This would be a much more flexible process that would probably lead to more transfers and possibly more trials for detainees.
Although the bill has been approved, it still has a long way to go before it becomes a law. No actual vote has been held; members of the Committee have only agreed to debate the bill’s provisions on the Senate floor. A rival bill has also been drafted by Republicans in the House of Representatives that would maintain the blanketed ban on transfers for any reason whatsoever.
So what are the benefits of the bill? First of all, it might speed up the process for detainees who are actually being charged with crimes. Military tribunals are notoriously slow, and we often have to wait years before we see a verdict in these trials. If we opened up our traditional court system, we might see quicker results. That’s not to say that our traditional system is lightning quick, but if we remove some of the barriers that prosecutors and defense attorneys face in military tribunals we would probably see a lot more efficiency.
Aside from that, the cost of providing medical treatment to detainees at Guantanamo can be astronomical. Medical expenses are high as it is, but when you factor in transportation costs for medical personnel and equipment, they become ridiculous. We would not only be able to cut our bottom line if we were able to provide quicker, better, and cheaper medical attention for detainees, but we would probably be able to quiet some of the human rights concerns that have stemmed from force-feeding detainees that have been on hunger strikes for months now.
Overall, there are a lot of positives to be found in the bill. President Obama’s initial promise to close Guantanamo a year into his presidency has turned into a lengthy debacle and it doesn’t look like the government will be able to close it in one fell swoop. If we make the decision to close it, it’s going to be a long process. And even if this bill were voted into law it’s probably unlikely that high-value detainees would be transferred due to security issues. So is this bill just a small step towards the slow phasing-out of Guantanamo Bay? Yes. But it’s a step nonetheless, and a step we can build on.
Chris Whitten, Research Fellow
Center for Policy and Research