By: Todd Lerner, Pace International Law Review,Articles Editor
President Barack Obama’s plan to close the detainee camp at Guantánamo Bay by early 2010 suffered a major setback at the hands of bipartisan congressional opposition. Members of Congress from both parties recently rejected Obama’s request for $80 million from the $91 billion war funding bill, as part of his promise to close the prison by early next year. Republicans and Democrats alike refused to surrender the money without knowing what will happen to the detainees.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell maintained that it would be “irresponsible” and “dangerous” for the Senate to approve funding without knowing what the administration planned to do with the detainees. Official reports indicate that there are approximately 240 terrorists suspects still held at the naval base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
The Senate also approved a Republican amendment requiring the Obama administration to provide Congress with a “threat assessment” of each detainee, essentially determining the likelihood that an inmate, if released, would rejoin a terrorist faction.
In response, President Obama unveiled a plan that would bring some suspected terrorists imprisoned at Guantánamo Bay into the United States to stand trial, while others would be held without trial indefinitely – referred to as “prolonged detention” – for those detainees considered too dangerous to release but who cannot be prosecuted. Obama explained that while most detainees could stand trial in civilian courts, military commissions, or turned over to foreign governments, there are still others that may not be tried at all, either for lack of admissible evidence or because the evidence is tainted. Obama also announced that detainees who were cleared for release could potentially settle in the United States, a decision that now has been all but abandoned.
In his speech at the National Archives Museum in Washington, President Obama reassured Americans that “[w]e are not going to release anyone if it would endanger our national security, nor will we release detainees within the United States who endanger the American people.”
Citing national security concerns, lawmakers were not persuaded. Primarily due to the fear that suspected terrorists would be housed near their homes, Obama’s plan was met with heavy opposition and skepticism. Afterward, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, stood by the Senate’s 90-6 vote that blocked the $80 million Obama had solicited.
“Whatever happens with Guantánamo will happen in the next fiscal year,” remarked Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin, noting, “a lot of our members feel they are in a vulnerable position.” The next fiscal year begins October 1, 2009.
Recently, Congressional Democrats reached agreement on a war financing bill that would allow Guantánamo Bay detainees to be tried in the United States. Noticeably absent from the bill, however, was a provision for prolonged detention without trial.