WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The House of Representatives on Wednesday approved legislation to prohibit moving terrorism suspects from the military prison at Guantanamo Bay to U.S. soil, a blow to President Barack Obama’s efforts to prosecute them in criminal courts.
The proposed legislation prevents moving such prisoners to the United States under any circumstances by prohibiting the administration from spending any money to do so.
In the past, the government was allowed to bring detainees, including the self-professed mastermind of the September 11 attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, to the United States to face trial.
The provision was tucked in must-pass legislation that would fund the U.S. government’s operations through the end of the 2011 fiscal year, September 30, 2011. That legislation now goes to the Senate for approval.
The Obama administration condemned the tighter restriction on moving the detainees and argued that Congress should not direct how the administration prosecutes such cases.
“We strongly oppose this provision. Congress should not limit the tools available to the executive branch in bringing terrorists to justice and advancing our national security interests,” said Justice Department spokesman Matthew Miller.
The inclusion of the provision in the bill was unusual because Democrats still control the House through the end of the year and previously they had approved allowing detainees to be brought into the country for prosecution.
The spending ban makes it impossible for President Barack Obama to follow through on his campaign pledge to close the prison at least through September, when the spending bill expires.
There are still 174 detainees at Guantanamo prison and about three dozen were set for prosecution in either U.S. criminal courts or military commissions. Republicans have demanded that the trials be held at Guantanamo.
The first detainee held at Guantanamo was brought to the United States last year and prosecuted in federal court in New York. He was acquitted on all but one of the 285 charges against him in the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa.
That verdict involving Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani drew stinging criticism from Republicans over the sole guilty verdict, which carries a sentence of 20 years to life in prison. They said terrorism suspects should face special military commissions.
Obama administration officials countered that scores of terrorism suspects have been prosecuted in criminal courts and they should have both venues as options in the future, including detainees held at Guantanamo Bay.
Republicans and some of Obama’s fellow Democrats blasted plans by Attorney General Eric Holder to prosecute Mohammed and four of his accused co-conspirators for the September 11 attacks in New York. They expressed concerns about security and whether the suspects were entitled to full U.S. legal rights.
The White House then shelved that plan and is now reconsidering how to move forward with those trials. Holder has defended his plan. (Editing by Doina Chiacu)