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Defense bill offers another chance for progress on Guantanamo

New provisions in the annual defense bill would make it easier to transfer detainees out of the facility
Military officers stand at the entrance to Camp VI and V at the U.S. military prison for 'enemy combatants' on June 25, 2013 in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Military officers stand at the entrance to Camp VI and V at the U.S. military prison for 'enemy combatants' on June 25, 2013 in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

When the Senate votes on this year’s National Defense Authorization Act, it could approve changes to current law that would remove many of the obstacles to closing the Guantanamo Bay and transferring the men being held there.

With the bill up for debate this week, human rights groups are again hopeful that these changes will make it possible to finally close the prison that has become a symbol of indefinite detention.

President Obama has long promised to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay; he signed an executive order calling for its closure on his second day in office. However, he has been slow to transfer prisoners even after they have been cleared by defense and intelligence agencies. Eighty-four of the men there now have been cleared by the task force appointed by the president.

Whether public pressure would force the Senate to approve changes that would allow the men at Guantanamo -- most of whom have never been charged with any crime -- to go home is still unclear. Obama has cited congressional opposition as the main stumbling block to taking meaningul action, even as positions dedicated to closing the facility remained unfilled, and many members of the GOP are still vocally opposed to ever releasing the detainees for fear of recidivism.

If the Senate passes the NDAA, the transfer process would no longer include some of the most onerous restrictions. Right now, the NDAA bans the transfer of prisoners to the United States in order to stand trial in a civilian court. It also requires that the Secretary of Defense be able to certify that a detainee will not do anything after their release that would threaten national security, an impossible standard to meet. The new NDAA would remove the ban on bringing prisoners here for trial or medical treatment.

While making it easier to transfer prisoners out of Guantanamo would not necessarily end indefinite detention, the changes would be a step that could seriously reduce the number of prisoners under U.S. control. Obama has appointed envoys dedicated to closing the prison at the State Department and the Pentagon, and military officials announced recently that it is ready to begin periodic review boards for detainees.

Public pressure to close the prison has waned as the number of prisoners has dwindled and the years have dragged on, but human rights groups remain hopeful that Obama will find a way to make good on his promise to close it. Both Attorney General Eric Holder and major human rights groups released letters this week in support of the new provisions, and Senate Armed Services Committee chair Carl Levin, D-MI, pushed hard for the changes.

Now that the Senate is poised to make these changes, some celebrities are trying to bring the issue back into the public eye. Esperanza Spalding, a singer and jazz musician who won the Best New Artist grammy in 2011, wrote a song and shot a video featuring Stevie Wonder, Janelle Monae, and other artists to encourage fans to contact their senators about the issue.

Spalding decided to record the “We Are America” when she learned about the hunger strike at the detention facility. The conditions that led dozens of men to undergo forced feedings and months of isolation horrified Spalding. “As I learned that there were far better options on the table, and that what is going on at Guantanamo is a clear violation of US human rights obligations, I felt I had to do something,” she said.

The Senate is expected to vote on the defense bill, which also includes provisions that would change the way the military prosecutes sexual assault cases and that would reform a program that issues visas to Afghans and Iraqis who worked as interpreters for U.S. troops, before the Thanksgiving recess.