As the health of some Guantanamo Bay detainees deteriorates, lawmakers are once again pushing to authorize the transfer of prisoners to the U.S. for emergency medical care, according to the Senate Armed Services Committee version of the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act.
The provision, part of the defense policy bill the committee passed Wednesday authorizing $750 billion in Pentagon spending, would be a "narrow carve-out exception" to the transfer ban currently in place for detainees, a senior committee aide said Thursday on background.
The measure would also establish a chief medical officer position, allowing for direct reporting on the detainees' status to the Pentagon's Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs.
"We had a concern that the medical officers at Guantanamo under the command of the Joint Task Force commander might not be able to make an independent decision in regard to medical care," another staff aide said. "So we wanted to give them an option [by creating] the chief medical officer to appeal to the assistant secretary of defense for health affairs concerning issues where there may be a conflict."
Lawmakers have attempted to pass a similar measure for the last five years, the senior aide said. But lawmakers believe that the detainees' health will only get worse, and that facilities at the naval base are not equipped to handle emergency or complex procedures.
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"There is not a robust medical facility down there," the senior aide told reporters. The aide also cited a recent incident in which a lawyer at the base suffered a detached retina and was unable to receive the proper ophthalmological care there.
"There are certain emergency conditions that cannot be treated at Guantanamo. We acknowledge that the humane treatment of detainees requires them to get [proper care]," the staff aide added.
The move comes as officials have publicly acknowledged the center has become a "nursing home" for the aging terror suspects.
According to reporters who have recently visited the naval base, there are roughly 40 detainees at the facility, ranging in age from their 50s to 70s, who have multiple health problems, including chronic pain, sleep disorders and poor eyesight. Some exhibit early signs of what could be dementia, according to the base's senior medical officer. The oldest prisoner is 71.
The Geneva Conventions require the U.S. to provide detainees health care comparable to that its military members receive.
In April, Rear Adm. John Ring, commander of Joint Task Force-Guantanamo, was relieved from his post by Adm. Craig Faller, head of U.S. Southern Command, due to a loss of confidence in his ability to command.
One day earlier, Ring had publicly stated to members of the media that the detainees might not be receiving adequate medical treatment.
"I'm sort of caught between a rock and a hard place," he told DefenseOne in an interview. "The Geneva Conventions' Article III, that says that I have to give the detainees equivalent medical care that I would give to a trooper. But if a trooper got sick, I'd send him home to the United States. And so I'm stuck. Whatever I'm going to do, I have to do here."