Obama threatens veto of measure to halt Guantanamo transfers

Government report shows nine transferred detainees have returned to fighting

Jonathan Ernst—Reuters
U.S. Senator Richard Burr (R-NC) (C)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill on Thursday that would bar any transfers of detainees from the Guantanamo Bay military prison while President Barack Obama is president or until he signs a new defense policy bill. The measure passed by 244 to 174, largely along party lines, with all but four Republicans backing it and all but 12 of Obama’s fellow Democrats opposed. President Barack Obama has promised to veto the measure. The bill passes just days after a U.S. intelligence report was released saying that in the first six months of 2016, two more militants released from the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba have returned to fighting. On Wednesday, Washington confirmed that a total of nine people freed from Guantanamo have rejoined militant groups since President Barack Obama took office in 2009, according to a report issued by the Office of Director of National Intelligence, or ODNI.”The President keeps putting his legacy before national security,” said Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC), who is Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. “By releasing Gitmo detainees back into the fight, we continue to stack the deck against our own security interests. Nothing is more important than keeping our country safe. Continuing to empty out the prison at Gitmo so that these fighters can return to committing acts of terror against the US and our allies is a terrible mistake.” The bill that passed the House prohibits use of funds to transfer individuals detained at the Guantanamo Bay military prison to the United States or any foreign country. In a press release, Obama said that operation of the prison “weakens our national security by draining resources, damaging our relationships with key allies and partners, and emboldening violent extremists.”Obama vowed that he would close the controversial detention center at the base in Cuba as he first campaigned for the White House in 2008, a pledge echoed by current Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, who said that closing Guantanamo should remain the goal. Obama has faced bipartisan opposition from those who say Guantanamo is an important tool in the fight against terrorism. They say prisoner transfers are a security threat, pointing to reports that some of the hundreds released during the prison’s 15-year-long history have returned to the battlefield.The report released this week said the number of militants freed by the Obama administration whom U.S. agencies “suspect” of having returned to action dropped to 11 from 12 between January and July.An official familiar with the latest statistics said this number dropped because a freed detainee previously categorized as “suspected” of returning to the battlefield now has been confirmed to have done so.The United States opened the Guantanamo detention facility in 2002, the year after the Sept. 11 attacks by Islamist militants on New York and Washington, to hold what it described as foreign terrorism suspects. Most have been held without charge or trial for more than a decade, drawing international condemnation.Obama had hoped to close the prison during his first year in office. In February, he rolled out a plan aimed at shutting it, but that is opposed by many Republican lawmakers and some of his fellow Democrats.The figures released by ODNI still showed that the administration of Obama’s predecessor, Republican George W. Bush, released 532 detainees, far outnumbering those released by the Obama administration. The report estimates that 113 of those have returned to fighting. In all, the Obama administration has released 161 prisoners from Guantanamo since 2009, 17 of them in the first six months of this year, ODNI said. Obama has recently accelerated releases, fueling concerns by prison supporters that he might use his executive powers to close it altogether before leaving office in January. There are currently about 60 prisoners at the base. The bill would stop transfers only until Obama leaves office in January or signs a new National Defense Authorization Act, an annual bill setting defense policy. Obama has threatened to veto versions of the bill passed by the House and Senate this year.Reuters News Service contributed to this report.