Top House Democrat Urges Obama To Appoint Special Envoy On Gitmo Closure

Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA)

The top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee in a letter to President Obama on Tuesday praised the president’s renewed commitment to close the Guantanamo Bay prison but urged Obama to appoint a senior official charged with working to close the facility.

“I write to add my strong support to your efforts to re-engage with Congress on this issue,” Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA) said. “I will do everything I can to aid those efforts.”

The State Department in January reassigned Daniel Fried, the special envoy for closing Gitmo, and did not replace him. Attorney General Eric Holder said this month that the administration is “in the process now” to fill the position, and Smith is urging action:

I ask you to appoint a senior official, either to your White House staff or to a senior position within the Department of State, charged with leading the renewed efforts to transfer those detainees held at GTMO who have been cleared for transfer by the Guantanamo Detainee Review Task Force. The appointment of a senior leader to negotiate and effectuate international detainee transfers is fundamental to a renewed effort to close GTMO.

Obama can order Defense Secretary Hagel to start transferring detainees out of Guantanamo, particularly 59 Yemenis who have been cleared for release. Not only would that begin the process of closing Gitmo — and perhaps even end the ongoing hunger strike there — but it’s relatively non-controversial because, as the Los Angeles Times reported last week, the Yemenis’ “new government wants them back.”

Smith agrees:

I also ask you to make several efforts to expedite the transfer of detainees whose transfer from GTMO will not hurt the security of the United States. First, request Secretary of Defense Hagel to study the feasibility of using the national security waiver to transfer low-risk detainees. Second, implement a limited waiver of your ban on transfers to Yemen.

While the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), has also written Obama offering support for closing Gitmo, getting the rest of Congress, particularly Republicans, to sign on is going to be a tough sell. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) says he wants the prison closed but has so-far just complained that Obama has “never come up with a viable plan.”

“Congress has blocked it, so he’s going to have to find a way to remove the blockages of Congress, and hopefully he’ll let us know how he’ll do that,” Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) said Tuesday, according to the Hill.

More than 100 detainees are officially on hunger strike at Gitmo, and 31 are being force-fed — a practice rights groups have condemned as a violation of international law and possibly torture. “It’s getting uglier and uglier at Gitmo,” Smith told the Hill.

“The level of embarrassment is growing and the cost is growing, so is that enough to persuade [Members of Congress] that it’s time to change positions?” Smith added. “We’re going to have that debate.” (HT: Carol Rosenberg)