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US House Votes Draconian Gitmo Restrictions

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I like to believe that, despite studying Guanta'namo for four years, I still have a sense of humor, but last Thursday I lost it, after 258 members of the House of Representatives (including 88 members of President Obama's own party) voted for an idiotic, paranoid, and unjust motion proposed by Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ken.), which was designed to "prohibit the transfer of GITMO prisoners, period" (those were his exact words). Just 163 Representatives voted against the motion, which, as JURIST described it, also supports "adding Guanta'namo detainees to the federal 'no fly' list, and adopting Senate language forbidding the release of photos showing detainee abuse."

Just in case there was any doubt about the motion, Rep. Rogers, in his inimitable style, explained that he was concerned with "protecting the American people from all threats " including the warped intentions of terrorists and radical extremists," and proceeded to explain that "this motion strengthens the House bill's current restrictions on Guanta'namo Bay detainees by ensuring their names have been put on the No Fly list and by clearly prohibiting their transfer to the United States -- for whatever reason."

After lambasting the Obama administration for having "no plan" for how to close Guanta'namo, Rep. Rogers explained that "this motion prohibits the granting of any immigration benefit for any reason. Without such a benefit, there is no legal way to bring these terrorists to American soil and in our constituents' backyards. And, that means these terrorists cannot be granted the same constitutional rights as American citizens."

He added,

After all, these detainees are enemy combatants, caught on the battlefield. They are not common criminals and they should not be granted legal standing in our criminal courts by bringing them onto U.S. soil. From my point of view, we cannot waver on this issue, nor can we be weak. There is no reason these terrorists, who pose a serious and documented threat to our nation, cannot be brought to justice right where they are in Cuba. And, I certainly think that is where the American people stand on this issue -- they don't want these terrorists in their hometowns, inciting fellow prisoners, abusing our legal system, and terrorizing their communities.

This, then, is the reason that I have lost my sense of humor. In May, members of the U.S. Senate voted by 90-6 to approve an amendment to the Supplemental Appropriations Act of 2009, eliminating $80 million from planned legislation intended to fund the closure of Guanta'namo, and specifically prohibiting the use of any funding to "transfer, relocate, or incarcerate Guanta'namo Bay detainees to or within the United States." Defending the amendment, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), speaking for himself and his spineless colleagues who had bowed to a Republican fear-mongering campaign, said, "This is neither the time nor the bill to deal with this. Democrats under no circumstances will move forward without a comprehensive, responsible plan from the president. We will never allow terrorists to be released into the United States."

In June, the House of Representatives followed up by passing a spending bill turning down the administration's request for $60 million to close Guanta'namo, which, as JURIST described it, "placed limits on the government's ability to transfer detainees to the U.S. and release detainees to foreign countries." Approved by a vote of 259-157, the bill also prohibited funds from being used to release detainees from Guanta'namo into the United States. In JURIST's words,

The legislation [requires] the president to submit to Congress a detailed plan documenting the costs and risks of transferring a detainee to the U.S. for trial or detention at least two months before the detainee is to be transferred. Additionally, the president [has] to notify the governor and legislature of the state to which the detainee is to be transferred at least 30 days before the transfer and must show that the detainee does not pose a security risk. The bill also requires that the president submit a report to Congress before releasing a detainee into his country of origin or last habitual residence unless that country is the U.S.

Last Thursday's vote was for a non-binding motion to instruct conferees to follow Rep. Rogers' motion (see an explanation here) rather than binding legislation, but, at the very least, it signals that lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are determined to scupper Barack Obama's pledge to close Guanta'namo by January 22, 2010, for two indefensible reasons.

The first is the NIMBY card (Not In My Back Yard), in which lawmakers wail, as Rep. Rogers put it, that "the American people " don't want these terrorists in their hometowns, inciting fellow prisoners, abusing our legal system, and terrorizing their communities." This requires everyone involved to conveniently forget that America's Supermax prisons are the envy of prison-lovers the world over, that convicted mass-murdering criminals -- including some convicted of terrorism -- are safely locked away in these prisons, and that the rest of the world is looking on and laughing at the lawmakers' feeble paranoia.

However, the second reason for my despair is rather more fundamental. To hear Harry Reid, the Senate Majority Leader, use the word "terrorists" when referring to the Guanta'namo prisoners, and to hear this same word repeated ad infinitum by Rep. Rogers, and by those many members of the Senate and the House who have persistently voted to prevent the closure of Guanta'namo, is to step back into those dark months after the 9/11 attacks, when former Vice President Dick Cheney and his closest advisors were hatching their plans to hold anyone who ended up in U.S. custody as an "enemy combatant" -- in other words, neither as a criminal nor as a prisoner of war, but as whole new category of non-being without rights.

It involves stepping back to a time when Cheney and his associates were hatching their plans to hand out bounty payments, averaging $5,000 a head, to the U.S. military's Afghan and Pakistani allies, who seized at least 86 percent of the men who ended up in Guanta'namo, the majority of whom were not "caught on the battlefield," as Rep. Rogers claims; and when they were hatching their plans to prevent the military from conducting competent tribunals under Article 5 of the Geneva Conventions.

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Andy Worthington is the author of "The Guanta'namo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America's Illegal Prison" (published by Pluto Press), as well as and "The Battle of the Beanfield" (2005) and "Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion" (more...)

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