Bergdahl Swap Makes Obama’s Guantanamo Vow Tougher to Do

President Barack Obama’s effort to close the Guantanamo Bay prison camp, already stymied for five years, has been made more difficult by the swap that freed U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl.

Senator Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican who serves on the Armed Services Committee, said yesterday that he’ll introduce a bill this week suspending any more prisoner transfers from Guantanamo for six months in response to Obama’s decision to free five Taliban men who’d been held at the U.S. prison in Cuba in exchange for the U.S. soldier captured in Afghanistan.

“There are widespread reports there are four or five additional terrorists the administration is considering releasing,” Cruz told reporters after a closed-door briefing by administration officials on the Bergdahl case. “Congress has an obligation to make sure we are not jeopardizing the safety” of Americans by releasing more prisoners, he said.

Obama has shown a renewed determination to find some way to keep his promise to close Guantanamo, two administration officials said last week. It’s a promise he first made in a June 2007 campaign speech in San Antonio, Texas.

In an address last month at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, Obama said he believes it’s necessary to shut the prison “because American values and legal traditions do not permit the indefinite detention of people beyond our borders.”

Congressional Opposition

Obama signed an executive order in January 2009 to close the detention facility, but the U.S. Senate voted 90-6 against appropriating $80 million to do so. Then in May 2010, the House Armed Services Committee rejected Obama’s plan to transfer the detainees in Cuba to a prison in Thompson, Illinois.

Subsequent efforts to try alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and other detainees in U.S. federal courts also collapsed. So now, after most of the almost 800 people who had been held there since early 2002 have been transferred to other countries for continued detention or release, 149 people are still behind bars at Guantanamo.

Of those, 78 have been approved for transfer to other countries and about 30 are facing prosecution, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf has said. The rest, she said last week, are unlikely ever to face prosecution, and would have to be transferred or released eventually.

Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican who was held as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam, disputed her assessment.

Indefinite Detention

“They can be detained indefinitely, and they should be,” he said. The measure authorizing the Afghanistan war “is still in effect until Congress repeals it,” he said yesterday.

Further complicating matters, the bulk of the remaining detainees are alleged members or associates of the Yemeni terrorist group al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which Obama and other U.S. officials have said now poses the greatest threat to American and other foreign interests. Neither Yemen nor any Persian Gulf country is willing to take them, leaving Obama with no clear path to keep his promise, said the two U.S. officials, who asked not to be identified discussing classified information.

Now, new obstacles are merging with the controversy over the deal to free Bergdahl. “The release of these prisoners and the way it was done will embolden the enemy,” said Senator Jeff Sessions, an Alabama Republican who attended yesterday’s briefing.

The House Appropriations Committee yesterday adopted an amendment to its defense spending bill expressing “deep concern” over the prisoner swap and criticizing the administration for violating a law requiring 30 days’ notice to Congress of any planned transfer to other countries.

Executive Authority

Obama has claimed executive authority to make exceptions to that law, a provision of the annual defense policy bill. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has said concern for Bergdahl’s health and life required the administration to act quickly,

The Republican-controlled House committee rejected that argument in the amendment it passed on a 33-13 vote, with a number of Democrats joining the majority.

“Any notion that exigent circumstances prevented proper congressional notification rings hollow when the administration clearly has been negotiating this transfer for several years,” the committee said.

Democrats also have complained about the failure of the Democratic administration to notify members of Congress in advance of the prisoner swap.

‘More Notice’

“They could have given more notice,” Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, the Democrat who heads the Armed Services Committee, said yesterday.

Levin said he would oppose Cruz’s measure to suspend all prisoner transfers, saying it may tie the admininstration’s hands too tightly “to say they should never do this.”

Senator Kelly Ayotte, a New Hampshire Republican on Levin’s committee, said she would support Cruz’s bill, even though she doubted it would have much effect.

“Every time lately we pass something around here, I have to wonder whether the president will enforce it,” Ayotte said in an interview. “He’s been quite selective in his enforcement.”

The Bergdahl-Taliban swap will get its most extensive public airing so far today, when Hagel is scheduled to testify before the House Armed Services Committee.

Representative Howard “Buck” McKeon, the California Republican who heads the committee, said on June 9 that administration officials in a closed-door briefing suggested that Hagel, not Obama, made the final decision on the deal.

Hagel’s Role

“The last question was, ‘Who made this decision?’ and they indicated Secretary Hagel,” McKeon told reporters.

McKeon said Obama came out in the White House Rose Garden with Bergdahl’s parents “and took all the credit, and now that there’s been a little pushback, he’s moving away from it and it’s Secretary Hagel? I don’t think so.”

As the president draws fire from Republicans and Democratic leaders over the agreement that secured Bergdahl’s release, 51 percent of Americans said they disapproved of his handling of the deal, according to a Bloomberg National Poll. Only 31 percent said they approved of how Obama handled the prisoner swap, while 18 percent said they weren’t sure about it.

State Department spokeswoman Harf said June 9 that complaints by lawmakers wouldn’t dissuade the administration from seeking to close Guantanamo.

“We don’t want the political controversy that’s come out of this swap to in any way impact our efforts to close Guantanamo Bay, because it’s the right thing to do,” Harf said at a State Department briefing.

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