MIAMI — President Barack Obama this week signed a $633 billion defense bill that continues to block his ability to close the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and then in a separate signing statement called the prison a waste of national security resources.
“I continue to believe that operating the facility weakens our national security by wasting resources, damaging our relationships with key allies, and strengthening our enemies,” Obama said in a statement released by the White House.
While the president has bristled at the restrictions in past signing statements, this time he highlighted the expense.
The White House had threatened to veto the Pentagon’s spending bill because of a number of concerns, including limits on the president’s authority to transfer terrorism suspects from the Guantanamo prison. As of Wednesday, the Pentagon held 166 detainees at Guantanamo — at least 55 of whom are cleared for release and just nine on trial or convicted of crimes.
Obama, on vacation in Honolulu, said he signed the bill because “the need to renew critical defense authorities and funding was too great to ignore.”
The 2013 National Defense Authorization Act funds the Pentagon’s operating budget, gives troops a 1.7 percent pay raise, authorizes nearly $480 million for U.S.-Israeli missile defense cooperation, and adds up to 1,000 Marines to embassy security detachments around the world. It also authorizes many additional expenditures and forbids others, effectively using the power of the purse to impose policy.
The Obama administration had lobbied Congress to remove the Guantanamo restrictions, at one point threatening a veto, and at another noting the inflated costs of doing business at the remote base.
In a Dec. 11 letter to Congress, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta argued for relief from the restrictions by highlighting the financial costs of the prison, where 1,700 troops and civilians work in a setting that requires the Pentagon to import food, fuel and electricity. “These sections would preclude moving even convicted war criminals serving life sentences to secure facilities in the United States that would also be economically efficient,” Panetta wrote to the House Armed Services Committee Chairman, Rep. Buck McKeon, in a letter obtained by The Wall Street Journal.
The administration has estimated the cost of keeping a prisoner captive at Guantanamo at more than $800,000 per year. A Government Accountability Office study on the possibility of moving captives to U.S. soil estimated the cost of one year’s federal confinement in a maximum security lockup at $34,627.55 a year. It did not predict costs if the military were responsible for Guantanamo captives moved to U.S. facilities.
The last two detainees to leave Guantanamo were a Yemeni man who the military says committed suicide by overdose in a maximum-security lockup, and convicted war criminal Omar Khadr who went to a prison in his native Canada under a negotiated plea deal.
Early in Obama’s presidency, diplomats negotiated transfer agreements to third countries for resettlement (Germany, Bermuda, El Salvador and Palau are some examples). But the diplomatic talks ground to a halt because of Congress’ restrictions on transfers.
The Justice Department has notified the federal court that it has cleared 55 captives for release, many of them Yemenis and Syrians who can’t be safely repatriated to their homelands. They have nowhere to go, so they remain in detention because of the restrictions.
Obama’s signing statement casts the restrictions as an encroachment on executive powers.
By forbidding federal trials for Guantanamo captives, he said, the law he signed “substitutes the Congress’ blanket political determination for careful and fact-based determinations, made by counterterrorism and law enforcement professionals, of when and where to prosecute Guantanamo detainees.
“Removing that tool from the executive branch undermines our national security. Moreover, this provision would, under certain circumstances, violate constitutional separation of powers principles.”
And echoing past statements, Obama also left open the possibility that administration attorneys might interpret the restrictions as overreaching and inapplicable.
“In the event that these statutory restrictions operate in a manner that violates constitutional separation of powers principles, my administration will implement them in a manner that avoids the constitutional conflict,” he said.