WASHINGTON, D.C. – When Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl was freed by the Taliban in exchange for five Guantanamo detainees, some lawmakers saw the move as a loophole President Obama could use to finally close the prison.
It was a promise he first made on the campaign trail in 2008. At his 2014 State of the Union address, the president reiterated that he’d shut down the detention center by the end of the year.
But the prospect of using executive powers to transfer the 149 remaining prisoners out of Guantanamo has revived opposition to closing down the facility.
Republican Texas Senator Ted Cruz announced a bill Monday that he plans to introduce this week that would stop the President from releasing any prisoners from Guantanamo Bay within the next six months.
The half year freeze would keep the President from using any funds to transfer prisoners out of the camp and would penalize the executive branch if Obama were to go ahead with any actions regardless of the law. It would also keep the 71 prisoners cleared for transfer at Guantanamo in limbo.
Cruz called the legislation a necessary moratorium on transfers until further details are known about the Bergdahl prisoner swap. He indicated that his decision to write the legislation followed media reports that Obama was considering releasing at least four other Guantanamo detainees.
That news he said, “not only show’s there is no accountability for [the Taliban five swap] but it appears that this administration is willing to go down the same road and it can only be assumed that they will again not notify Congress.”
With the six month freeze, Cruz hopes that the Obama administration will be able to fill in some blanks about the deal.
Answers Cruz wants to know include “who participated in the decision to release the Taliban detainees?” And, “How was the decision made to ignore the law and bypass congress?… In what circumstances does the administration to intend to openly disregard the law?”
Since news of the Bergdahl prisoner swap emerged two weeks ago members of Congress on both sides of the aisle have split on whether Obama’s decision was a success or a sellout.
Lawmakers say Obama ignored the law and his administration’s own pledge to provide Congress with notification at least 30 days in advance. The White House insists it acted lawfully and said it had to move quickly to save Bergdahl’s life.
Congress has always been divided on whether or not to close the Guantanamo Bay prison. And agreeing how exactly to shutter its doors has proven just as a complicated.
At the beginning of his first term, Obama made a strong push to close the detention center. But Congress stopped him, passing legislation that made it impossible to transfers detainees to the U.S. for trial and creating high hurdles to move prisoners elsewhere.
In recent months the Obama administration has ramped up its push to transfer detainees to other adequate locations. Now there is fear that backlash to the Taliban five trade might thwart the momentum.
For those in favor of shuttering the detention center, the recent prisoner exchange looked like it could be the beginning to the end. Rep. Jim Moran, D-VA, has spent more than a decade pushing to try the Guantanamo prisoners in court and to ultimately close the facility. He is retiring at the end of this term–likely without seeing his dream through.
“I applaud the administration for securing the release of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl in exchange for releasing five Guantanamo detainees to the custody of the Qatari government,” Moran told DecodeDC. “The fact is that if we had tried and sentenced these prisoners we would not be in this situation discussing the merits of the decision to release them.”
If Senator Cruz’s bill passes, the prisoners remaining at Gitmo, many who have spent more than a decade there without a trial, could remain at least half a year longer in detention.