Video: Durbin, Gingrich debate future of Gitmo

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    Welcome, both of you, back to MEET THE PRESS . So on day two of the Obama administration, the president shuts down Guantanamo Bay , the prison there, says it'll be closed within a year, but he doesn't really have a plan for how he's going to do it. And of course this week the debate bursts into the open over the issue of what's going to happen to these detainees who are still at Guantanamo once the prison is closed. Vice President Cheney waded into this debate this week during a speech. This is what he said.

    FMR. VICE PRES. CHENEY: I think the president will find, upon reflection, that to bring the worst of the worst terrorists inside the United States would be cause for great danger and regret in the years to come.

    MR. GREGORY: And here is Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid . He says, "What we don't want is them [to] be put in prisons in the United States . We don't want them around the United States ."

    Senator Durbin , strange bedfellows, Cheney and Reid , in lockstep on this issue.

    SEN. DICK DURBIN, (D-IL): I think that President Obama made it clear in his speech at the National Archives that he is going to face this issue squarely and resolve it fairly. And he said, I think very clearly, that we're not going to allow anyone who is dangerous to come to the United States . Now, let me just say this, I know what Vice President Cheney said. But if you want an insight into his analysis of intelligence and national security , you should always remember four words: weapons of mass destruction . That was a bogus fear tactic used by Vice President Cheney years ago which led us into a war that has cost us 4,283 American lives, we should recall on this Memorial Day weekend, added a trillion dollars to the national debt and took the eye off of capturing Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda .

    MR. GREGORY: But, Senator Durbin , in this case you have not just Vice President Cheney , but the majority leader of the Senate saying, "No, we don't want these detainees to come into prisons in the United States ."

    SEN. DURBIN: Now that President Obama has made it clear what his plan is, he'll bring that to Congress . We have successfully tried terrorists in the United States . As I sit here today, we have 347 convicted terrorists secure in our incarceration in our facilities. We know that they can be tried and held safely. I'm sure the president will be able to work this out with members of Congress .

    MR. GREGORY: Speaker Gingrich:

    FMR. REP. NEWT GINGRCH, (R-GA): Well, let, let me start with, first of all, it was Secretary of State Colin Powell who also talked about weapons of mass destruction , so this is not a Cheney problem. The fact is every member of the American government senior leadership believed in the intelligence they were getting at the time. And the question comes right down to, as Vice President Cheney said this week, what's your highest priority? Is it to defend America and protect American lives, or is it to find some way to defend terrorists and to get terrorists involved in the criminal justice system? I can't imagine -- given the fact, for example, that we just picked up four terrorists in New York who had been converted in prison , I can't imagine -- the director of the FBI has said don't put these terrorists in prisons because there'll be an active threat to convert other people. The fact is these, these terrorists -- we're now down to the worst of the worst. These are the -- the Bush administration released over 500 people. One out of every seven actually went back to war against us and is out actively trying to kill Americans today. So I would be very cautious. I think the president made a very big mistake . It was a campaign promise , it is not a national security plan. I think, frankly, they should keep Guantanamo open. Whatever the, whatever things that are wrong at Guantanamo they would fix by moving them to somewhere else , fix them at Guantanamo .

    MR. GREGORY: How long should Gitmo remain open?

    REP. GINGRICH: Until the war is over.

    MR. GREGORY: When is that?

    REP. GINGRICH: We'll -- when the terrorists disappear. I mean, you're faced with...

    MR. GREGORY: Well, you're talking about a pretty long-term proposition here.

    REP. GINGRICH: Yes, because this is a long-term proposition. You have people out there today who want to kill Americans , who would like to set off a nuclear weapon in an American city, who would like to set off a truck bomb down the street from where we are right now. These folks are serious. They're, they're still there. They're fighting in Pakistan right now, they're fighting in Iraq right now. We just arrested four people in New York City last week. What do you do with somebody who's a dedicated, religiously-motivated terrorist? You had better keep them locked up.

    MR. GREGORY: But, Senator, what about this issue of conversion in prison ? What about the FBI director saying that there are concerns if you bring some of these figures into U.S. prisons?

    SEN. DURBIN: Just remember that President Bush called for the closing of Guantanamo ; President Obama did the same, as did Senator McCain in the last campaign. And I also want to remind the former speaker that Major Matthew Alexander , who has actually interrogated al- Qaeda suspects in Iraq , attributes half of the deaths of Americans in Iraq to the detention abuses at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo . Continuing Guantanamo , unfortunately, makes our troops less safe. The bottom line as I see it is Guantanamo should close in an orderly way. President Obama announced that last Thursday. We understand that at the end of the day there will be some of these people, I don't know the exact number, who will be too dangerous to be released, and President Obama said he would work with Congress and the courts to detain them in a humane, constitutional and legal way.

    MR. GREGORY: Let me pick -- I want to pick up on a point here, and this is another argument that the president made with regard to keeping the prison at Guantanamo Bay open, and the, the stain on the U.S. image because of that. This is what he said.

    PRES. OBAMA: Instead of serving as a tool to counter terrorism , Guantanamo became a symbol that helped al-Qaeda recruit terrorists to its cause. Indeed, the existence of Guantanamo likely created more terrorists around the world than it ever detained.

    MR. GREGORY: Senator Durbin , where's the evidence to support that claim?

    SEN. DURBIN: I just gave it to you: Major Matthew Alexander , who interrogated the al-Qaeda suspects in Iraq . And it was his conclusion that half of them had been recruited and were fighting, trying to kill Americans because of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo . Are we going to ignore this? The fact is that closing Guantanamo , that announcement by the president, as well as

    abandoning torture techniques and so-called enhanced interrogation , finally said to the rest of the world that it's a new day. Join us in a new approach to keeping this world and America safe. I think it was a break from the past we desperately needed. And to turn around now and to take the approach that Mr. Limbaugh has suggested, that Newt Gingrich has suggested, Vice President Cheney , would put us back in that same terrible position where our troops will be less safe by continuing Guantanamo .

    REP. GINGRICH: Let me say, first of all, there were over 550,000 troops who served in Iraq . I'm sure you can find one to agree with you. The fact is the 3,100 Americans who were killed on 9/11 were killed before there was a Guantanamo . The recruits who were going into Iraq were going into Iraq long before Guantanamo was, was a serious factor. The people fighting today in Pakistan are fighting Pakistanis . The people -- the Taliban who's fighting in Afghanistan , they're not running around using Guantanamo . They're running around using the existence of America . One of the terrorists in Guantanamo recently threw his television down and broke it because he had a picture of a woman with bare arms. I think we are kidding ourselves about who these terrorists are and we're kidding ourselves about the power of this. Guantanamo matters because in America and Europe the left has decided the matter. So let's build a brand-new facility. Tell me how it will be different from Guantanamo and tell me how many weeks it would take before it became the new symbol that was attacked because you're still going to be holding people in prison , they're still going to be isolated. You have to keep them isolated. These are bad people who want to destroy America , and if they're not isolated they're going to actively engage in terrorist planning. The World Trade Center bombing in 1993 was in part planned from Attica prison by a terrorist that we had locked up in Attica who was sending information out by a helper.

    MR. GREGORY: Senator Durbin , isn't it also an issue that the 1993 bombing happened, there was no Guantanamo Bay prison . In other words, terrorists who want to attack America are going to find a rationale. They will find a symbol of America to attack.

    SEN. DURBIN: Guantanamo is not the only reason that inspires terrorism around the world against the United States . But let's be honest about it, since 9/11 we have seen al-Qaeda become a global franchise. And their recruitment tool , the one that they're using repeatedly, is the detention techniques used by the United States at specifically Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo . What I don't understand from the speaker, if he thinks we shouldn't incarcerate convicted terrorists in the United States for fear that they might continue to be dangerous, what are we going to do with them? What would you have us do with the 347 convicted terrorists now in prison in the United States ?

    REP. GINGRICH: Well, look.

    SEN. DURBIN: We know they're being held safely. And when we checked with the director of FBI , Mr. Mueller , he said there's no question that supermax facilities, not a single escape, we limit the communication of these detainees and prisoners, and we can continue to do that.

    REP. GINGRICH: Well, first of all, I think we should, in fact, rethink how we are handling terrorist recruitment and terrorist propaganda in prisons because, as I said, last week there were four examples of people who were picked up in New York who had been converted in prison . So then we need to rethink the terrorists who are currently in prison , design a specific facility for

    terrorists , keep them totally isolated from the rest of the prison population and put them somewhere. And, and again, I think this is a, this is a hard problem that'll be around.

    But let me also point out, Senator, al-Qaeda did not become a global concern after 9/11. Al - Qaeda had been operating in Iran , in Iraq . They had, they had bombed the United States forces in Saudi Arabia , they bombed two American Embassies in East Africa , they bombed the Cole in Yemen . All of these happened before 9/11. Now, it's true that in the, in the 1990s people in the Clinton administration didn't want to confront that this was a war; they kept trying to handle it as a criminal procedure . In fact, it's very dangerous to go back to thinking of these guys as criminals. This is a war and these are terrorists .

    MR. GREGORY: Let me bring it back to this week. Senator Durbin , all but six Democrats voted in the Senate to block funding to support the president in his plan to close down the prison . Why the defiance of their president, and do you think the speech this week by President Obama changed things? If so, how?

    SEN. DURBIN: What I heard from my colleagues on the floor is we're waiting for the president's plan. What is he going to do in terms of the future of Guantanamo and what will happen to the detainees? On Thursday at the archives, National Archives , the president spelled this out clearly that he is going to follow the values of our Constitution , rule of law and transparency, there'll be real accountability, and he went through four or five different categories of how we'll treat these detainees. I think at this point that you'll find members of Congress , I hope from both sides of the aisle, who will step forward and say now we have to find a way.

    MR. GREGORY: So...

    SEN. DURBIN: And I might add that that's going to include people like Lindsey Graham . I've spoken to him, he's spoken on the floor. I think there are ways we can come up with a bipartisan approach to implement the president's plan.

    MR. GREGORY: All right, but was it a mistake to bring the plan forward without the resolution for these detainees?

    SEN. DURBIN: Well, it was a mistake for us to entertain putting money, $80 million in for the transfer of these detainees until the president's plan was released. And so that's why the NOA amendment was successful.

    MR. GREGORY: You'd be OK with al-Qaeda prisoners, those currently at Guantanamo Bay , in a prison in Illinois ?

    SEN. DURBIN: Well, I'd be OK with them in a supermax facility, because we've never had an escape from one. And as I said, we have over 340 convicted terrorists now being held safely in our prisons. I just don't hear anyone suggesting releasing them or sending them to another country. That isn't part of the prospect that we have before us.

    MR. GREGORY: Let, let me take a, a larger view here. If you look at the question of how President Obama is trying to put his imprint on national security in this war against terrorists , two competing points of view from President Obama and Vice President Cheney , as we think about

    chapter two in the war on terrorism with the new administration. Let's listen to both men and have you both react.

    PRES. OBAMA: The American people are not absolutist, and they don't elect us to impose a rigid ideology on our problems. They know that we need not sacrifice our security for our values, nor sacrifice our values for our security so long as we approach difficult questions with honesty and care and a dose of common sense .

    FMR. VICE PRES. CHENEY: But in the fight against terrorism there is no middle ground , and half measures keep you half exposed. You cannot keep just some nuclear armed terrorists out of the United States , you must keep every nuclear armed terrorist out of the United States . Triangulation is a political strategy, not a national security strategy.

    MR. GREGORY: Why can't there be a middle-ground approach , some compromise with regard to how to fight terrorists ?

    REP. GINGRICH: Well, I think there can be a, an effort to find a common agreement, but I don't think you can find -- I don't think it's a question about compromise. The thing that I think motivates Cheney , and I watched this firsthand after 9/11, is the shock of 9/11, the reality that his children and his grandchildren could die, that he has an obligation to America to take extra steps to keep us alive. And I think this was burned into him that day and the following day, and the realization we had been caught totally off-guard. Despite all the warnings of the '90s, we have been caught totally off-guard. And so they did everything for seven and a half years to -- and they have a very simple principle: If you're in doubt, do what it takes to help America survive every time. So they consistently fell down on the side of being very tough about national security , being very tough with specific terrorists . And remember, the Obama administration has reserved to itself the same right to use enhanced interrogation techniques at the direction of the commander in chief that the Bush administration did. They were used three times -- they were used on three people who were known terrorists who had very high value information. So I'm just saying it's, it's ironic; when you get below the speech, President Obama in many ways -- he's now back to military tribunals ...

    MR. GREGORY: Right.

    REP. GINGRICH: ...you know, he's, he's, he's back to somehow keeping all these terrorists , even if not in Guantanamo , he is keep -- he's reserving the right to use enhanced interrogation techniques in his administration, which by the way is absolutely correct...

    MR. GREGORY: But do you agree with the vice president when he says that the country is less safe under President Obama ?

    REP. GINGRICH: Absolutely.

    MR. GREGORY: Why?

    REP. GINGRICH: Because I believe if you just look at the behavior of the last two months, the effort to open up past wounds -- if you were a CIA employee today and you understood that there were people out there who wanted a truth commission , there are people who wanted to say to you, "I'm, I'm going to go back six, seven, eight years and I'm going to put you on trial potentially," if you look at what, what Speaker Pelosi said, "They all lied to -- they lied to us all the time," the drop in morale, which frankly Director Leon Panetta , himself a former Democratic congressman, has testified, has said this has hurt morale. The question is, is the most important thing to us today to find some kind of civil -- American Civil Liberties Union model of making sure that we never offend terrorists , or is the model for us today to say to the CIA and others, "Do everything you can to protect America . We're going to cover your back, we are proud of you and we want you to defend America "?

    MR. GREGORY: Senator Durbin , the vice president's -- former vice president's daughter, Liz Cheney , said that President Obama has a September 10th mentality in his fight against terrorists .

    SEN. DURBIN: Let me say -- if you, if you step back and take a look at history for a moment, you will find the message we just heard from Mr. Gingrich , from Vice President Cheney and Mr. Rush Limbaugh to be the same, it's a message of fear:"Be afraid, be very afraid." And to say that this president is not doing everything in his power to keep America safe is just as irresponsible as anything I've ever heard said on your program. This president is dedicated to the safety of America . He has said clearly that he's not going to allow a single dangerous person to be released in the United States or be in a position to harm us. He's doing everything night and day to keep us safe. But let's look at what we have here. The president said in his speech -- he didn't question the motives of those like Vice President Cheney , who thought they were keeping America safe. The fact is, in a way it didn't work. Guantanamo became an inspiration for recruiting terrorists around the world. At the end of the day, it was President Bush in his second term who abandoned the Cheney approach , who said, "We're not going to use torture. We're going to close down Guantanamo because it isn't working to keep America safe." Now, I just want to tell you, when people like General Colin Powell step forward and say to us, "Put torture behind us and close Guantanamo ," I believe they are on the right track. Here's a person who served our nation in the military and on the Joint Chiefs of Staff , and he believes we can keep America safe with a much better approach . And this notion somehow that President Obama is not keeping America safe has been rejected by the American people . They trust his leadership.

    REP. GINGRICH: Let me just say, I think people should be afraid. I think the lesson of 1993 , the first time they bombed the World Trade Center , was fear is probably appropriate. I think the lesson of Khobar Towers , where American servicemen were killed in Saudi Arabia , was fear is probably appropriate. I think the lesson of the two embassy bombings in east Africa was fear is probably appropriate. I think the lesson of the Cole being bombed in Yemen was fear is probably appropriate. I'll tell you, if you aren't a little bit afraid after 9/11 and 3,100 Americans killed inside the United States by an effort, if you weren't worried about the second-wave attack that was designed to take out the biggest building in Los Angeles , I think that, that you are out of touch with reality.

    MR. GREGORY: Right. But -- wait, but Speaker Gingrich , you make the point about how Vice President Cheney felt personally, personal fear. And isn't President Obama 's argument that fear

    as a basis of national security policy is not sustainable over time? How do you come up with a sustainable legal framework, a sustainable national security policy?

    REP. GINGRICH: We, we...

    MR. GREGORY: Don't we elect leaders to transcend fear for lasting policies?

    REP. GINGRICH: Look, we sustained the Cold War against the Soviet Empire for 44 years because our national leadership came together and said to the country there are sufficiently great dangers to America to sustain our power worldwide. I mean, we sustained against the Soviet Empire worldwide for 44 years. Now, that requires us to have a -- I think the first level of debate's simple: How much should you worry about something truly terrible happening to America ? I belong to the wing that believes we live in an age when very few people using very dangerous weapons can cause incalculable damage, and I think we should take very strong steps to make sure that doesn't happen.

updated 5/24/2009 3:15:16 PM ET 2009-05-24T19:15:16

Until President Barack Obama can outline exactly how he plans to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, suspected terrorists will remain imprisoned there, lawmakers and the president's top military adviser said Sunday.

Senators from both parties and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, pressed Obama for details on how he intends to fulfill his promise to close the detention facility that houses 240 suspected terrorists.

"We're saying, 'Mr. President, give us the plan,'" said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.

Obama's promise to close the Navy-run detention facility by early 2010 ran smack into political reality in the last week. Obama's fellow Democrats denied him funding to move the suspected terrorists while Republicans latched onto a message that helped the minority GOP drive sustained headlines for the first time in months.

"Well, I don't think you can convince the American people that you can bring the people from Gitmo to their states and they will be safe," said Sen. Richard Shelby, a Republican.

The not-in-my-backyard chorus drove Obama to deliver a speech defending his decision to close the facility, proposed during the campaign and delivered during his second full day in power. Yet lawmakers and even Obama's own advisers remained unsure after the speech of how, exactly, the president would make good on his vow to close the symbol of the United States' detention of suspected terrorists in a legal limbo.

Looking for the next step
Mullen said he was looking for the next step from his commander in chief.

"We're working hard now to figure out what the options are and what the best one would be. And that really is a decision the president is going to have to make, certainly in meeting this deadline of what we do," Mullen said.

When Obama didn't specify the mechanics for closing the prison, his allies were left scratching their heads and his critics asking why the need to shut it down, given that some of the prisoners were likely to go to scaled-down versions of Guantanamo anyway.

"I don't know why it is better to have somebody in a so-called "supermax" facility in, say, Colorado than it is to keep them in Guantanamo, a state-of-the-art facility that we built not too long ago for the explicit purpose of holding these people," said Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz. "There's nothing wrong with the prison in Gitmo, and there are a lot of problems — as FBI Director (Robert) Mueller pointed out in testimony just this week — with bringing those people to the United States."

Mueller told Congress it would be risky to relocate Guantanamo prisoners to U.S. facilities, giving House and Senate Democrats an opening to oppose Obama's request for $81 million to close Guantanamo without a detailed accounting of where the detainees will go.

'You had better keep then locked up'
Former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich said the site should stay open "until the war is over." When pressed, Gingrich acknowledged it's a long-term prospect.

"You have people out there today who want to kill Americans, who would like to set off a nuclear weapon in an American city, who would like to set off a truck bomb down the street from where we are right now," he said. "These folks are serious. They're, they're still there. ... What do you do with somebody who's a dedicated, religiously motivated terrorist? You had better keep them locked up."

Obama's options in dealing with the prisoners have led him in a circle back to the Bush-era policies he decried. Although the United States has in its domestic prisons many individuals convicted of terrorism, an influx of suspected terrorists onto the U.S. mainland is a political challenge.

"We have terrorists in jail right now, have had for some time," Mullen said. "They're in supermax prisons. And they don't pose a threat. So that's certainly an option. But again, it's not one for me to decide."

Congressional Democrats, however, aren't taking chances with their president's choice. They denied Obama funding to move those detainees from Guantanamo to other sites — perhaps in Saudi Arabia, perhaps in Colorado — until lawmakers were assured precise details.

"I think they need to be kept elsewhere, wherever that is," said Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb. "I don't want to see them come on American soil."

Durbin concedes White House stumbled
A top Obama ally, Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, conceded that the White House stumbled.

"Well, it was a mistake for us to entertain putting money — $80 million — in for the transfer of these detainees until the president's plan was released," he said.

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell, a Republican who endorsed Obama's candidacy and has called for Guantanamo's closing, also said Obama made a mistake.

"I think that's the message that came out of Congress: We can't give you $80 million," said Powell, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs.

"There's a lot of internal home resistance to bringing these people into the country. So you come forward with a plan that makes some sense and you tell us how you're going to resolve all of these cases and do it in a way that we can support and then maybe we can move forward. So I think it was premature to ask for the money," Powell said.

Boxer and Shelby spoke on CNN's "State of the Union." Mullen appeared on ABC's "This Week." Kyl and Nelson appeared on "Fox News Sunday." Gingrich and Durbin spoke with NBC's "Meet the Press." Powell appeared on CBS' "Face the Nation."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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