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H.R. 758: Vaccinate Americans, Not Terrorists Act


Who should be prioritized in the line for immunizations?

Context

There’s not currently enough vaccine in existence to vaccinate everyone right away, and government officials have been having to make hard choices about who goes first and who goes last.

Established in 2002 after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Guantánamo Bay military prison has housed about 780 suspected terrorists during its history. The site has proven controversial because many detainees were held indefinitely without actually being charged or being put on trial, though its defenders — including former President Donald Trump — say it’s critical to national security.

While the prisoner population has shrunk dramatically since its 2003 peak, about 40 people are currently still held there.

On January 29, it was revealed that the Pentagon had decided to offer COVID-19 vaccines to Guantánamo detainees who consented, with the process to start three days later on February 1. The decision was made by Terry Adirim, the Pentagon’s principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for health affairs.

After a public outcry, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby clarified that the plan had been halted on January 30. “No Guantanamo detainees have been vaccinated,” Kirby tweeted. “We’re pausing the plan to move forward, as we review force protection protocols. We remain committed to our obligations to keep our troops safe.”

Troops and other Americans working at Guantánamo Bay have been getting vaccinated since January 8.

What the bill does

The Vaccinate Americans, Not Terrorists Act would prevent any Guantánamo Bay detainee from getting vaccinated for COVID-19, until every single Armed Services member who intends to get vaccinated has done so, or until the federal government has fulfilled every state’s vaccine request.

It was introduced in the House on February 3 as bill H.R. 758, by Rep. Ashley Hinson (R-IA1).

What supporters say

Supporters argue that people who seek to kill Americans shouldn’t receive earlier protection from a virus which has killed more than 460,000 Americans.

“Every single American citizen who wants a COVID-19 vaccine should get one before any doses are sent to GITMO,” Rep. Hinson said in a press release, using Guantánamo Bay’s nickname which originated as a phonetic pronunciation of the Navy call sign GTMO. “Every dose of the COVID-19 vaccine that was going to be given to a GITMO detainee should go to an Iowan — whether it’s a police officer in Cedar Rapids, a nurse in Waterloo, or a teacher in Dubuque.”

What opponents say

Opponents counter that the whole point of Guantánamo Bay is to hold prisoners until they can be put on trial for war crimes — and that the lack of vaccinations has actually complicated efforts to conduct those trials.

“As a policy matter, the suspension of the vaccination program is highly counterproductive and unethical,” Ryan Goodman, Oona Hathaway and Steve Vladeck wrote for Just Security. “The pause puts at risk the lives not only of detainees, but also U.S. servicemembers and civilians working at the military base. It also threatens to further delay the ongoing proceedings before the Guantánamo military commissions, the slow pace of which has been a consistent source of criticism from many of the same politicians and commentators now criticizing the Biden administration for, among other things, trying to speed things up.”

Odds of passage

The bill has attracted 27 cosponsors, all Republicans. It awaits a potential vote in the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Odds of passage are low in the Democratic-controlled Congress.

Last updated Feb 19, 2021. View all GovTrack summaries.

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