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updated 7/17/2009 11:09:33 AM ET 2009-07-17T15:09:33

A fight is brewing between Capitol Hill and the Pentagon over allegations that Chinese government agents were allowed to interrogate some detainees at Guantanamo Bay.

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Jay Alan Liotta, principal director of the Defense Department office responsible for detainee policy, told a House subcommittee on Thursday that he would not publicly comment on whether officials from China or any other nation were granted access to foreign citizens held at the detention facility.

He offered to release that information to the committee during a closed, classified session.

Lawmakers weren’t happy about his answer.

Rep. James P. Moran, D-Va., said he would introduce an amendment to strip funding for Liotta’s office if the Defense Department does not disclose, in open session, whether a Chinese delegation was allowed to question Guantanamo detainees who are members of a Muslim minority in China called the Uighurs.

“Unless we get a full and accurate answer, I intend to offer an amendment to defund that office, and I intend to go as high as we need to go,” Moran said. “To not allow members of Congress to have communication with detainees, but you allow foreign intelligence agents ... that is an absolute insult to the U.S. Congress.”

Members of Congress have been routinely denied access to the Guantanamo detainees.

“The American people have a right, without compromising national security, to understand what happened at Guantanamo, particularly in this case of the Uighurs,” said Rep. Bill Delahunt, D-Mass., chairman of the subcommittee that conducted the hearing. “The answer that it should be in a classified setting is absurd.”

Ranking Republican Dana Rohrabacher of California agreed, saying he recently was denied access to terrorism detainees.

“Elected officials with oversight responsibilities have every right to talk to federal prisoners of any kind, and we thought with the change in administrations there would be a change in attitude,” Rohrabacher said.

The dispute over disclosure isn’t partisan, he said: “It’s about protecting the constitutional balance of power between the legislative and executive branches of government.”

Three former Uighur detainees submitted testimony through legal counsel on Thursday alleging that all 22 detainees of the Chinese Muslim minority group were interrogated by Chinese government officials during a seven- to 10-day visit in 2002.

The former detainees testified that they were forced to provide their photographs and identities to the Chinese agents under the threat of torture and, under those agents’ orders, were denied food and water and isolated in a frigid room.

The Uighurs, from the northwestern part of China, received wider attention in the past few weeks after clashes between them and the majority Han population that reportedly resulted in more than 150 deaths and more than 1,000 injuries.

CQ © 2009 All Rights Reserved | Congressional Quarterly Inc. 1255 22nd Street N.W. Washington, D.C. 20037 | 202-419-8500

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