Charles Dharapak / AP

Obama expected to sign defense bill despite clause blocking Gitmo closure

President to sign $607B defense policy bill because he believes it contains other important provisions, says spokesman

Barack Obama is expected to sign a $607 billion defense bill into law even though it contains a clause that would bar transporting Guantánamo Bay detainees to the United States — a prohibition that could scupper or at least further delay the president’s long held promise to close the controversial camp.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the revised version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), passed by Congress on Tuesday, would likely be enacted, as Obama believes it contains other important provisions.

“What the president does believe, though, is that there are a number of provisions in the NDAA that are important to running and protecting the country. So that’s why I would expect you’d see the president sign the NDAA when it comes to his desk, whenever it comes to his desk,” Earnest said.

“That certainly does not reflect a change in our position or the intensity of our position about the need to close the prison at Guantánamo Bay,” he added. Obama vowed to shutter the detention camp in campaign pitches before becoming president — a promise he reiterated on his first day in office — but Congress has repeatedly thwarted his efforts.

The Senate on Tuesday overwhelmingly passed the NDAA, a sweeping defense policy bill that contains provisions that could make it more difficult for Obama to carry out his pledge to close the detention center in Cuba

The Senate’s 91-3 vote gave final legislative approval to the measure. The House overwhelmingly passed it last week, 370-58.

Obama does not like the NDAA’s Guantánamo provisions, but if he vetoes it, the House and Senate would likely be able to muster the two-thirds majorities needed to override his veto — an embarrassing blow that presidents try to avoid.

He vetoed an earlier version of the defense policy bill over a dispute, later resolved, about whether spending increases should be accompanied by boosts in domestic programs.

Among other things, the bill would:

• Provide a 1.3 percent pay increase to service members and a new retirement option for troops.
• Authorize lethal assistance to Ukraine forces fighting Russian-backed rebels.
• Extend a ban on torture to the CIA.
• Authorize the president’s request of $715 million to help Iraqi forces fight the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.

“We all know the unfortunate and unnecessary roadblocks the defense authorization bill has faced this year. We all know that the president decided to veto the version of this bill we passed last month,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

“We look forward to the president signing the bipartisan bill — along with its restrictions against bringing terrorists into the United States — into law,” he said.

The legislation has become a lightning rod for debate over whether the president needs congressional approval to move some of the remaining 112 detainees from the U.S. detention center in Cuba to the United States or could do so with an executive order. 

The Obama administration has so far released and deported 130 Guantánamo prisoners. Some prisoners were released after years of lobbying by legal and human rights groups that charged that the men were held without due process and tortured.

Congress has opposed the release of the remaining prisoners, and some of Obama’s supporters accuse him of failing to prioritize closing the military prison facility.

A Pentagon report expected as early as this week identifies prisons in Colorado, Kansas and South Carolina where Guantánamo detainees could be housed. That has raised the ire of lawmakers, especially ones from those states.

Earnest hinted last week that the president might use his executive authority to close the prison. On Monday, Earnest said the White House is focused on working with Congress to shut down Guantánamo, but he left the door open on Obama’s taking executive action.

“I’m not aware of any ongoing effort to devise a strategy using only the president’s executive authority to accomplish this goal,” Earnest said. “But I certainly wouldn’t, as I mentioned last week, take that option off the table.”

The facilities reviewed by a Pentagon assessment team were the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks and Midwest Joint Regional Corrections Facility in Leavenworth, Kansas; the Consolidated Naval Brig in Charleston, South Carolina; the Federal Correctional Complex, which includes the medium, maximum and supermax facilities in Florence, Colorado; and the Colorado State Penitentiary II in Canon City, also known as the Centennial Correctional Facility.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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