Get ready for Round 2 on Gitmo.
Though President Obama failed in his high profile attempts to close the detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay during his first term -- let alone within his first year per White House executive order, his Democratic allies in the Senate are raising the issue once again.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee has stirred up the latest Gitmo closure rumors by ordering a Government Accountability Office report identifying all U.S. mainland detention facilities that might be suitable to taking in its 166 detainees.
The senior California Senator seemed to be a Gitmo supporter at the outset, noting on a Jan. 2002 visit with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld that its tropical breezes “sure beat lockdown at Folsom,” the notorious prison a couple hours drive from her native San Francisco. However in the years to follow, Feinstein became one of the chief proponents of closing Gitmo, introducing legislation in 2007 to shutter its doors, prompting fanciful discussions in the halls of Congress and the Pentagon about moving detainees to Alcatraz.
Though President Obama failed in his high profile attempts to close the detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay during his first term his Democratic allies in the Senate are raising the issue once again.
The latest trial balloon floated by Democrats has about as much chance of resulting in Gitmo’s closure anytime soon as sending some of Al Qaeda’s finest to Alcatraz did then.
First, though the GAO report identified 6 military facilities and 98 Justice Dept. facilities that could house detainees, there would have to be potentially billions of dollars spent on things like security upgrades, prison modifications, guard force training, and shuffling around military and/or civilian prisoners for a variety of laws and prison regulations.
And more importantly, Congress has already outlawed transferring Gitmo detainees to the U.S. mainland, in large part to avoid scenarios where a myriad of judges could set them free on Main Street U.S.A. With a House of Representatives still dominated by Republicans, overturning such laws seems highly unlikely.
Feinstein’s point of all this however, is predictably political. The first quote of her press release issued on Wednesday says it all “This report demonstrates that if the political will exists, we could finally close Guantanamo without imperiling our national security.”
Like just about everything in Congress, it’s more complicated than meets the eye.
Though ordered years ago, Feinstein’s GAO report has arrived just in time for the Senate to debate the Defense Department’s authorization bill for next year. As Democrats have been unhappy with their hands tied on closing Gitmo through past authorization bills, their timing is perfect for conveniently newsworthy excuses on reasons to cut military spending. The report cites Gitmo’s cost at over $114 million a year, thus making an easy target for showing why defense budgets need trimming.
And wow, are the Democrats ever looking for reasons to cut defense spending these days.
With $480 billion in cuts already programmed from President Obama’s first term, plus the White House-Congressionally mandated “sequestration” that kicks in automatically on Jan. 2nd for an additional roughly $500 billion - a grand total of $1 trillion will be slashed from the military and defense industry over the next decade. Should those budget reductions go through as planned, we’ll see the smallest and weakest military we’ve had since the 1970's. Horses and bayonets notwithstanding.
Significant defense cuts are familiar territory for Democrats, especially of the Northern California variety. Literally. San Francisco used to host a hub of military bases, now it’s a virtual military ghost town. Should sequestration go through, we can expect a lot more places around the country to follow suit.
But back to the timing of GAO report. Putting this backburner issue in the public spotlight this week seems to be an awfully convenient way of distracting from more newsworthy controversies – like Benghazi, for instance.
And speaking of Benghazi, with the worst intelligence community failure in exactly 11 years in not anticipating the terrorist attack, then botching the public explanation dragging down U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice’s shot at Secretary of State, doesn’t Ms. Feinstein have more pressing things to do right now than worry about 166 Al Qaeda-linked detainees and if they’d be more comfortable in Gitmo, Kansas or Colorado?
I’d be more comfortable if her priorities were on asking the hard questions on where the next Benghazi-style attack might happen so we can prevent it. I’m sure we’d all be better off.
J.D. Gordon is a retired Navy Commander who served as a Pentagon spokesman in the Office of the Secretary of Defense from 2005-09. He serves as senior adviser to several Washingtonbased think tanks.