Obama threatens veto of NDAA over Guantanamo, US-Cuba relations

U.S. President Barack Obama © Jonathan Ernst
President Obama is ready to veto a Senate defense appropriations bill seeking to keep the Guantanamo Bay detention camp running, the White House said, as it expressed concern over the bill’s “troubling provisions.”

“If the president were presented with S. 2943, his senior advisors would recommend he veto the bill,” the Obama administration said in a statement on Tuesday.

The White House expressed opposition to “many provisions” listed in the Senate’s $602 billion National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for the next fiscal year, because it would “hinder” the Pentagon’s ability, the president's own defense strategy and the administration's ability to carry out national security and foreign policy.

“These provisions have nothing to do with the national security of our country, and decrease the economy and efficiency of the Federal procurement system,” the statement said.

First and foremost, the White House referred to the bill’s provisions relating to Guantánamo, the notorious US detention facility in Cuba.

“Rather than taking the steps necessary to close the facility, this bill includes several provisions that would seek to extend its operation,” the statement said.

Closing Guantánamo, which Obama has called “a sad chapter in American history,” was one of his major 2008 campaign promises. He vowed that, if elected, he would shut down the military prison in 2009. However, as the end of Obama’s second term in the Oval Office nears, the facility also known as Gitmo still operates.

In February, the administration submitted a comprehensive plan, outlining steps to safely close the detention facility by the end of his presidency.

Additionally in its statement, the White House lambasted the Senate bill for failing to “eliminate the unwarranted limitations on the transfer of detainees,” while also introducing “additional problematic restrictions” that would impede Gitmo’s closure.

Relocating prisoners to third-party countries has not been easy. “Onerous restrictions” are currently constraining transfers of prisoners, the White House wrote.

“The president has objected to the inclusion of these and similar provisions in prior legislation,” it added.

The Senate bill also proposes eliminating the Pentagon's undersecretary for acquisition, technology and logistics, divvying up that office's responsibilities in the name of greater efficiency.

The administration’s statement also addresses provisions of the bill that are aimed at “curtailing the normalization of our relationship” with Cuba, hampering military-to-military interactions.

One section, for example, would limit the ability of the secretary of defense to “invite, assist, or assure the participation” of Cuban officials in security conferences.

“It is in the US national security interest to maintain flexibility in US military-to-military engagement with Cuba due to Cuba's proximity and the many shared challenges faced by the United States and Cuba,” it said.

The White House also objects to the bill’s sections that would reorganize the Defense Department “at a dangerous time,” restructuring “key parts” that would “likely” make it “less efficient and agile.”

The Senate’s proposed changes “have not been thoroughly reviewed by experts, either within or outside the Department,” the statement said.

Obama already threatened to veto the House of Representatives' version of the annual bill, HR 4909, in May. He criticized their bill’s prohibitions on closing down the facility and accused the legislators of creating a “hollow force structure” by boosting Army troop levels “without the money to sustain it.” 

A final version of the NDAA bill will be negotiated by congressional leaders once both the House and Senate pass their versions.

Last year, Obama vetoed the military funding bill passed by Congress, which envisioned almost $1 billion in aid to Syrian rebels and the Ukrainian government, citing the allocation of $38 billion into a war fund not subject to budget caps. Another point of contention were the sections of the 2016 bill that made it nearly impossible to shut down Gitmo.

Despite the veto threat, the Obama administration has also left the door open, saying that it “looks forward to working with the Congress to address these and other concerns.”