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Defense & National Security — Republicans scoff as Democrats try to close Gitmo

The Hill logo The Hill 7/5/2022 Jordan Williams
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Republicans are scoffing at Democrats’ latest attempt to close the detention facility in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.  

We’ll dive into that push. Plus, we’ll talk about the veterans who received the Medal of Honor for their service during the Vietnam War. 

This is Defense & National Security, your nightly guide to the latest developments at the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill and beyond. For The Hill, I’m Jordan Williams. A friend forward this newsletter to you? Subscribe here.

Republicans write off Dems’ push to close Gitmo

Democrats are reviving their efforts to shutter the Guantánamo Bay detention facility, but the push faces an uphill battle in the Senate, where Republicans are already writing it off as doomed. 

  • In the past month, House Democrats have advanced legislation seeking to close the facility in Cuba as part of a larger annual defense spending bill leaders are expected to bring to a vote in the full chamber, where the party holds narrow control, in the coming weeks.
  • But in the Senate, where Democrats will need GOP support to pass the defense funding bill, the move faces a wall of opposition from Republicans. 

Where things stand at Gitmo: There are three dozen detainees being held in Guantánamo Bay, a National Security Council (NSC) spokesperson told The Hill.  

Of those, 19 are eligible for transfer, five are eligible for a periodic review board, nine are involved in the military commissions process and three have been convicted in military commissions.  

The Biden administration transferred its first detainee from Guantánamo in July 2021, moving Abdul Latif Nasir to Morocco. Since then, the administration has transferred two more: Mohammad Mani Ahmad al-Qahtani to Saudi Arabia on March 7 and Sufiyan Barhoumi to Algeria on April 2. 

Most recently, the Department of Defense announced on June 24 that it transferred Asadullah Haroon al-Afghani, also known as “Gul,” from Guantánamo to his home country of Afghanistan. 

‘An absolutely vital institution:’ “I’m sure it’s not going to happen,” Sen. James Inhofe (Okla.), the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, told The Hill of closing the facility, adding, “no rational person’s going to support that. It’s an absolutely vital institution.” 

  • Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, also cast doubt on the effort, pointing to Democrats’ thin margins in both chambers.
  • “They have such slim majorities right now. It’s difficult for them to do anything … So, getting something that controversial done is just, as a practical matter, not going to happen,” Rogers said. 

Mixed signals: The $761 billion defense funding bill advanced recently by the House Appropriations Committee explicitly prohibits funds from being used to operate the facility after Sept. 30, 2023. But, at a mark-up session on the bill last month, two Democrats joined Republicans in voting in favor of an amendment offered by Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) to revoke that provision, ultimately failing in a largely party-line vote. 

Legislation advanced by the House and Senate Armed Services committees in mid-June has also sent mixed signals on the fate of Guantánamo Bay.  

  • The House Armed Services Committee’s version of the National Defense Authorization Act, which passed on June 23, limits the Pentagon’s ability to transfer detainees to Libya, Somalia, Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan. But it doesn’t explicitly prohibit the administration from closing the facility, a departure from past precedent. 
  • Meanwhile, the Senate Armed Services Committee’s version of the legislation, which passed a week prior, extends long-standing restrictions related to Guantánamo Bay through Dec. 31, 2023. This includes the bans on transferring detainees to the U.S and constructing facilities in the U.S. to house detainees. 

Worth the fight: “I’m gonna work hard in conference committee,” Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.), chairwoman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on Defense, said on the matter. “It’s not a good use of taxpayers’ money, and if we need more money for defense, it should go to things that are going to make a difference in our national security.” 

Read the full story here.

Four soldiers awarded Medal of Honor

President Biden on Tuesday awarded the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military honor, to four Army veterans for their bravery in the Vietnam War, upgrading previous awards given to each man for his service. 

The president held a ceremony in the East Room of the White House the day after Independence Day, which Biden noted marked 246 years since the founding of the nation. 

Among the honorees: Biden recognized the service of Specialist 5th Class Dwight Birdwell for fighting off an ambush in 1968 at Tan Son Nhut Airbase near Saigon. Birdwell took enemy fire to his face and torso but refused evacuation while he waited for reinforcements. 

The president also recognized Maj. John Duffy for his bravery when the enemy launched an assault on a U.S. airbase. Duffy was wounded but refused to be evacuated during the April 1972 assault, calling in airstrikes and tending to wounded soldiers. 

‘Setting the record straight’: “For each of those 246 years, American patriots have answered our nation’s call to military service. They stood in the way of danger, risked everything, literally everything, to defend our nation and our values,” Biden said. “However, not every service member has received the full recognition they deserve. Today, we’re setting the record straight.” 

Read the story here.

US F-35s arrive in South Korea

U.S. Air Force F-35 stealth fighter jets arrived in South Korea on Tuesday to conduct flight operations alongside their South Korean counterparts amid tensions with North Korea. 

The aircraft are expected to fly with several others over South Korea and surrounding waters as part of a 10-day training mission, U.S. Forces Korea said in a statement. South Korean F-35 aircraft are expected to fly with the American aircraft. 

“The familiarization and routine training flights will enhance the interoperability of the two Air Forces to perform and operate on and around the Korean Peninsula,” the statement said. 

“The aviation training is also an opportunity for the aircrews to perform sustainment and maintenance duties to support the latest in military aircraft technology,” it added. 

Read more here.

ON TAP TOMORROW

  • The International Institute for Strategic Studies will host a Special Lecture on Australia, ASEAN and Southeast Asia at 5:30 a.m. 
  • The U.S. Institute of Peace will host a discussion on “Justice and Accountability for Khmer Rouge Atrocities” at 10 a.m. 
  • The Royal United Services Institute will host a discussion on “Reflections on NATO’s Madrid Summit” at 11 a.m. 
  • The Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft will hold a discussion entitled “Active Denial: A Roadmap to a More Effective, Stabilizing, and Sustainable U.S. Defense Strategy in Asia” at 12 p.m. 
  • Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mark Milley will induct Medal of Honor Recipients into the Pentagon Hall of Heroes at 10 a.m.

WHAT WE’RE READING

That’s it for today. Check out The Hill’s Defense and National Security pages for the latest coverage. See you tomorrow!

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