Politics

December 27, 2013

Obama praises steps toward closing prison at Guantanamo Bay

But in a statement after signing the National Defense Authorization Act for 2014, he says the actions lack the flexibility he would need to complete the process.

By Maeve Reston
Los Angeles Times

KAILUA, Hawaii — President Barack Obama signed a sweeping defense policy law here Thursday that cracks down on sexual assault in the military and eases restrictions on transferring detainees from the federal prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to the custody of foreign countries.

click image to enlarge

A soldier closes the gate at the now abandoned Camp X-Ray at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, Cuba on Nov. 21, 2013. The facility was used as the first detention facility for al-Qaida and Taliban militants who were captured after the Sept. 11 attacks Detainees were housed in open air pens until the completion of Camp Delta in April 2002. Many detainees at Guantanamo Bay may be closer to heading home under a bipartisan deal reached in Congress that gives President Barack Obama a rare victory in his fight to close the prison for terror suspects.

AP Photo/Charles Dharapak

Marking a rare step toward achieving his goal of closing the controversial detention facility, Obama released a statement crediting Congress for relaxing regulations that he said had significantly hindered efforts to transfer detainees who had been cleared to leave.

"The continued operation of the facility weakens our national security by draining resources, damaging our relationships with key allies and partners and emboldening violent extremists," Obama said in the statement. He added that the new provision represents "an improvement over current law and is a welcome step toward closing the facility."

The new policy gives the Obama administration greater flexibility in accelerating the repatriation process underway to send Guantanamo detainees to their home countries, although it keeps in place the ban on transferring detainees to facilities in the United States.

Obama noted that the law does not eliminate all of what he called "unwarranted limitations on foreign transfers" and said that in certain circumstances, the law violates "constitutional separation of powers principles."

The Guantanamo provision is part of the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal 2014, which sets annual military spending levels and also contains a key provision forcing the Pentagon to revamp its sexual assault policies. The comprehensive defense law includes a 1 percent pay increase for service members and sets other combat pay and benefits.

The law contains several provisions that force the Pentagon to change how it deals with cases of sexual assault and rape in the ranks — crimes that have surged in recent years. But it stops short of the broad reforms that Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and other advocates have been calling for.

Also Thursday, Obama signed six other laws, including the bipartisan budget agreement negotiated this month by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis.

In a statement issued Thursday, Ryan said the budget bill doesn't go as far as he'd like, but that it's a firm step in the right direction. "This law is proof that both parties can work together," he said.

Earlier this year, Obama recommitted his administration to closing the Guantanamo Bay prison before the end of his second term. Shutting down Guantanamo was a 2008 campaign goal of his, but his efforts have been repeatedly stymied, including by Congress, which has imposed obstacles including preventing the administration from transferring detainees to prisons and other facilities in the United States.

"For the past several years, the Congress has enacted unwarranted and burdensome restrictions that have impeded my ability to transfer detainees from Guantanamo," Obama said in the statement.

On Thursday, Obama urged Congress to lift restrictions on transferring Guantanamo detainees to U.S. soil, where they could be brought to justice for their crimes. Obama noted that hundreds of other terrorism suspects have been successfully prosecuted in federal courts under previous Democratic and Republican administrations.

"The executive branch must have the authority to determine when and where to prosecute Guantanamo detainees, based on the facts and circumstances of each case and our national security interests," Obama said in the statement.

Even with some transfer restrictions lifted, the process of sending detainees to foreign countries remains slow and often occurs on a one-by-one basis as the United States negotiates with the new host countries over monitoring procedures and other security arrangements.

(Continued on page 2)

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