This week, the Obama administration showed some needed moral courage, threatening to veto the entire FY 2015 National Defense Authorization Act if it includes "unwarranted restrictions regarding the Guantanamo detainees" and expressing support for an amendment by Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) that would have mandated that Guantanamo be closed by the end of 2016.
Unfortunately, Rep. Smith's amendment did not pass the House -- falling short on a 177 to 247 vote. More positively, though, the House did not vote on an amendment by Rep. Jackie Walorski (R-Ind.) that would have banned all transfers to Yemen -- and would have effectively ensured that Guantanamo remain open by requiring that a large majority of those detainees who are cleared to leave Guantanamo (whom our government says it no longer has a need to hold) would remain there, indefinitely detained without charge or trial.
The action by the House leaves intact the president's authority to transfer detainees to other countries. Last year, the FY 2014 National Defense Authorization Act eased restrictions on transferring detainees to foreign countries (including their home countries). This change provided the president with the ability to transfer many of the detainees out of Guantanamo. The president should act now -- he should not wait for additional authority before doing the right thing, the moral thing. The president should transfer a significant number of detainees out of Guantanamo.
We appreciate the president's public support for efforts to close Guantanamo, but we have seen this political theater before. One year ago, on May 23, 2013, during a speech at the National Defense University, President Obama recommitted his administration to closing Guantanamo and ending indefinite detention. In that speech, he stated:
Today, I once again call on Congress to lift the restrictions on detainee transfers from GTMO.... But once we commit to a process of closing GTMO, I am confident that this legacy problem can be resolved, consistent with our commitment to the rule of law.... Imagine a future -- 10 years from now or 20 years from now -- when the United States of America is still holding people who have been charged with no crime on a piece of land that is not a part of our country. Look at the current situation, where we are force feeding detainees who are being held on a hunger strike.
[...] Is this who we are? Is that something our founders foresaw? Is that the America we want to leave our children? Our sense of justice is stronger than that.
This speech followed previous public commitments Obama made during the 2012 election and in 2009 in support of closing Guantanamo. President Obama is right about the moral necessity of closing Guantanamo and ending the indefinite detention, without trial, of the prisoners there. But the responsibility for doing so does not lie only with Congress.
Unfortunately, since the president's speech, and the easing of the restrictions on transfers, while there has been progress, it has been at a very slow pace -- so slow in fact, that unless President Obama picks up the pace, most of the current detainees in Guantanamo will still be there when he leaves office. President Obama has named special envoys at the State Department and at the Department of Defense, whose main jobs are to oversee the closing of Guantanamo. Yet, of the 166 men who were held in detention in May 2013, only 12 have been transferred out of Guantanamo in the past year. At this rate, it will be decades before the last detainees are transferred and the tragedy that is Guantanamo is finally closed.
President Obama currently has the authority he needs to transfer a majority of the detainees out of Guantanamo. One year later, on the anniversary of the president's May 23, 2013 speech, the National Religious Campaign Against Torture continues to ask our leaders in Washington, D.C., "Is this who we are?" Guantanamo is a place where our government tortured prisoners, and it continues to be a place where they are detained without charge or trial. Its existence violates our shared values. It is time to close the prison there.
On May 23, 2014, a broad coalition of human rights and faith organizations are taking our message to the streets. From the steps of the White House to the plains of Oklahoma, we are making our case known that the string of broken promises to close Guantanamo must end. In dozens of cities across the United States and around the globe, in rallies and vigils, we will state, unequivocally, that 13 years of torturing and holding men indefinitely is a tragedy that must end. This is not who we are. This is not the nation we want to leave our children. President Obama and Congress, are you listening?