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Pentagon wants more than $450 mn for Gitmo amidst swelling hunger strike

Pentagon wants more than $450 mn for Gitmo amidst swelling hunger strike
The Pentagon is requesting more than $450mln from lawmakers for maintaining and upgrading the Guantanamo Bay camp. The request comes as an intensifying hunger strike is ratcheting up pressure on President Barack Obama to push for the prison’s closure.

The budget request for the fiscal year beginning October 1 has called for $79 million for detention operations, the same as the current year. An additional $20.5 million has been requested for the office of military commissions, the military tribunals set up in 2006 for prosecuting detainees. The current price tag on the Guantanamo military commission is $12.6 million. A further $40 million is needed for a fiber optic cable and $99 million for operation and maintenance of the facilities.

The Pentagon is also mulling over a request from the Southern Command to spend about $200 million for renovating the camp, which will include the construction of a new prison building for “high value” detainees, as well as a new dining hall, barracks for prison guards, a hospital, a “legal meeting complex” and a “communications network facility” to store data.

The increased budget request comes in stark contrast to President Obama’s recent push to shutter the facility, where 103 out of the camp’s 166 detainees have been carrying out an unprecedented hunger strike for more than 100 days. Human rights advocates have placed the number of hunger strikers as high as 130.

Thirty of the hunger strikers are being force-fed through a nasal tube – a practice which the UN human rights office condemned as “torture” and a breach of international law. Three have been sent to the detainee hospital for observation. Lawyers for Guantanamo inmates have also claimed that prisoners who wish to talk to their legal representatives are being subjected to humiliating new cavity searches.

The 166 prisoners have been detained for eleven and a half years, the vast majority of them have not been charged with a crime, and 86 of them have been cleared for release.

The detention facility already ranks as one of the most expensive in the world, costing over $900,000 annually per prisoner.  With 166 detainees, Gitmo consumes over $150 million each year.

Obama moves to shutter Guantanamo?

Obama is expected to make a major speech on Thursday at National Defense University, where he will outline his latest plan to close the detention facility, as well as his administration’s drone policy, targeted killing and the war against al Qaeda.

The president’s new push to shut down Guantanamo comes after Congress blocked attempts to close Guantanamo during his first term in office, when Obama signed a 2009 executive order calling for the camp’s closure.

"Guantanamo is not necessary to keep America safe," the president said at a White House news conference last month. "It is expensive. It is inefficient. It hurts us in terms of our international standing. It lessens cooperation with our allies on counterterrorism efforts. It is a recruitment tool for extremists. It needs to be closed."

However, the Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act, 2013, the law that Congress passed and Obama signed in March to stem the possibility of a federal government shutdown, prohibits any additional funds for the transfer of Guantanamo detainees to the United States or its territories. It further blocks any expenditures on the renovation of any US facility on American soil to house detainees, effectively making it illegal for the government to transfer the men it plans to continue holding.

It also remains unclear how Obama will win over both Republicans and members of his own party who remain staunchly opposed to transferring terror suspects to the US.

While lawmakers have cited recidivism of released terror suspects as a reason to keep the camp open, in 2009 the Pentagon was only able to “confirm” that 18 former detainees – 4 percent of the camp’s population – had participated in attacks. A spokesman at the time said evidence of someone being "confirmed" could have included fingerprints, a conclusive photograph or "well-corroborated intelligence reporting."

Another issue involves the camp’s 86 detainees who have never been charged with a crime and have already been cleared for release.

Earlier this month, Democratic Senator Carl Levin wrote a letter to the White House requesting that the White House appoint an official who will be tasked with relocating the dozens of detainees who were being held without charge.

Levin, the Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman, said that although the defense authorization bill has restricted the administration’s ability to transfer detainees, a national security waiver provided a “clear route” to moving detainees to some third countries. Levin further urged Obama to find a way to close the camp without Congress’ blessing.

“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,”  Levin  told reporters Tuesday.

Levin told The Hill on Tuesday that he has yet to receive a response to his letter.

Democratic representative Adam Smith (D-Wash.) questioned in an interview if the growing international outcry surrounding the hunger strike was enough to persuade resistant lawmakers to change their position on keeping the camp open.

“It’s getting uglier and uglier at Gitmo…The level of embarrassment is growing and the cost is growing, so is that enough to persuade them that it’s time to change positions?” Smith asked.

“We’re going to have that debate.”