Rumors of Guantanamo base handover prompt House action
By TRAVIS J. TRITTEN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 3, 2016
WASHINGTON — House lawmakers worried President Barack Obama is set to give away the Navy base at Guantanamo Bay to Cuba mounted a pre-emptive legislative strike this week.
Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, introduced a bill Thursday that blocks a handover of the military base, which has become world famous for its terrorist prison, without the approval of Congress.
Meanwhile, Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, sent letters to the Pentagon, State Department and White House demanding assurances that no such handover plan is in the works.
The concerns come after Obama announced a trip to the Communist country later this month – the first by an American president in nearly 90 years – signaling a thaw in relations after a five-decade-old Cold War standoff and trade embargo. Cuba President Raul Castro urged the United States to return the Navy base but the White House has repeatedly denied it is considering such a move.
“While giving the base to the Castro regime may not be a part of ‘this trip,’ as the White House insists, its long record of one-sided concessions and lack of transparency over Cuba policy makes me very con-cerned about the status of this key naval station,” Royce said in a released statement.
Royce, whose bill is called the U.S. Naval Station Guantanamo Bay Preservation Act, called the facility a critical national security and foreign policy asset that military brass consider indispensable. The Navy has used the facility since 1903, though the communist government in Havana has protested since the 1959 revolution there.
“Too much is at stake for our president to unilaterally cede this base to a Castro regime that denies its people basic rights and freedoms while allying with governments hostile to U.S. interests,” Royce said in the release.
On a separate political track, the Obama administration has been working against Republicans in Con-gress to close the detention facility at Guantanamo, which has housed enemy combatants since just after 9/11. The closure has hit a political roadblock over where to transfer the remaining detainees, with widespread opposition to moving them inside the United States.
Now, Thornberry, who is the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said many lawmakers are concerned about the potential turnover of the Navy base, despite the White House denials, and that is why he requested clear statements from the administra-tion on its intentions.
“I admit a lot of this is rumor but there’s concern about the president’s trip to Cuba,” Thornberry said. “I’ve had a number of [House] members come up to me every time we come to vote and want to talk to me about this.”
Statements by White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest on the issue have “not been as clear as they could be,” Thornberry said.
Last month, Earnest said a handover was not being considered and pointed out the White House had repeated that many times. He was asked Wednesday whether Obama is planning to make an an-nouncement regarding the Navy base during his trip to Cuba on March 21-22.
“Well, I know that the president is not planning to visit the military facility on this trip, so I guess not,” Earnest told reporters.
The Pentagon on Monday also denied there is any consideration of turning over the facility to the Cas-tro government.
“Basically, it’s a strategic location, we’ve had it for a long time, it’s important to us and we intend to hold onto it,” Defense Secretary Ash Carter said.