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White House skips Senate’s first Gitmo hearing in 5 years

Though president Obama recommitted to closing the detention center at Guantanamo Bay in May, the first Senate hearing in five years held to discuss precisely that topic was notable for the lack of any White House witnesses.

On Wednesday, the Senate held its first hearing since 2009 on whether to shut down Guantanamo.  It was chaired by Senator Dick Durbin, D-Ill, one of the strongest proponents of the facility’s closure, who came up with a suggestion of how to do just that.

"We can transfer most of the detainees to foreign countries. And we can bring the others to the United States, where they can be tried in federal court or held under the law of war until the end of hostilities,” Durbin said as cited by AP.

This vision seemed unacceptable to some of the Republican Senators, as RT’s Liz Wahl reported from the hearing.

We did hear some concern now from Senator Ted Cruz [R-Texas] about what would happen if this base were to close, where these detainees were going to be transferred if this base does in fact shut down. Certainly there’s fear there among several Republicans concerning what exactly these detainees would do, where they would be sent. Certainly people don’t want them to be sent on US soil,” Wahl said.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) speaks during a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee July 24, 2013 in Washington, DC (AFP Photo / Win McNamee)

The fears are shared by the majority of the House of Representative members. The day before the Senate hearing, the House voted 247 to 175 against the amendment, which would have allowed Guantanamo closure to commence.

That makes it even more difficult for the Obama administration to act on the president’s promise to do away with the prison, to which Obama once again pledged commitment in May, during a major speech outlining US defense topics, including ongoing drone strikes in Afghanistan, Yemen and other regions of the world.

The Obama administration, however, declined an invitation to send a witness to Wednesday’s Senate hearing to bolster its case to shut down the facility, according to an aide for Senator Dick Durbin who spoke with The Daily Beast.

Both the hearing as well as Obama’s renewed effort to close Guantanamo come as detainees continue on a hunger strike in protest of their indefinite detention as well as conditions at the prison. The force-feeding of the hunger strikers has in particular become a magnet for criticism by those who argue for the facility’s closure and a growing number of human rights advocates.

I believe it violates international norms and medical ethics. And at Guantanamo, it happens day after day and week after week,” Senator Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said at the hearing of the continued force-feedings.

Supporters of closing the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base detention facility hold pictures of prisoners being held at the facility while viewing a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee July 24, 2013 in Washington, DC. (AFP Photo / Win Mcnamee)

Feinstein, who requested in April that the White House resume cleared prisoner transfers out of Guantanamo, has in the last few months become one of the most visible proponents of drawing down operations at the center. 

It was reported at the hearing that each of the 166 Gitmo detainees cost the US budget $2.7 million annually, which Feinstein described as “a massive waste of money,” according to Reuters.

Senators Durbin and Feinstein, the latter being chair of the Senate Intelligence committee, urged the administration to outline a process for closing the detention center in July. The two senators also urged Obama to direct the Department of Defense to stop conducting large-scale force feeding at the detention center.

Only a few days before the request made by the two senators a judge had ruled that only Obama himself had the power to intervene in halting the force-feeding of hunger strikers.

Of the 166 prisoners who still remain in the camp, 86 have already been cleared for release. However, owing to political opposition in Congress, early attempts by the Obama administration through the Department of Justice during its first term to transfer prisoners to other locations failed.

I’ll be the first to acknowledge that the administration could be doing more to close Guantanamo,” Durbin said on Wednesday, going on to explain that he and Feinstein had met with “senior White House officials” to discuss how to transfer detainees out of Gitmo.

AFP Photo / Paul J. Richards

The president has been clear that he wants Gitmo closed, and the national security waiver provides an avenue to start clearing transfers,” said C. Dixon Osburn, the director of Human Rights First’s law and security program. “If the White House believes it does not have the authority, they should tell Congress what authority they need and make it to the Hill and say so.

A lawyer for a Guantanamo detainee, Cindy Panuco, who spoke to RT, said it was commendable that the Senate was finally holding hearings concerning the base “after nearly five years of silence,” but she would have liked to finally see more action from those in power.  

What we heard today were not any concrete steps the Congress or the president are going to take to close the base, but we heard more talk, which is heartening that the base will be closed. But at this time we would like less talk and a little bit more action as President Obama still has not appointed an envoy in the Department of Defense to effectuate the closure of the base and there still not being designated separate and alternate site for the prisoners  that will be transferred,” Panuco said.