Four-and-a-half years into his presidency, Barack Obama remains stymied in his effort to close the Guantanamo prison for detainees captured in the war against al-Qaida.
A hearing of a Senate Judiciary subcommittee on Wednesday made clear that for now, there remains a very wide gulf between those who agree with Obama on closing Guantanamo and those who believe doing so would be too dangerous.
The timing of a raid Sunday at Abu Ghraib prison - now under Iraqi government control - which freed at least 250 militants, has supplied opponents of closing Guantanamo with new evidence in making the argument that sending detainees to places such as Yemen would be risky.
On Tuesday, a group called the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, a coalition of al-Qaida affiliates in Syria and Iraq, took responsibility for the Abu Ghraib prison break. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Ks., a former Army officer who testified at the Senate hearing, both mentioned the Abu Ghraib breakout as a reason for not closing Guantanamo. Foreign prisons, they said, were not secure.
Cruz said that Obama has told Americans “that al Qaida has been decimated and that we can now take a holiday from the long difficult task of combating radical Islamic terrorists … I don’t believe the facts justify that rosy assessment.”
He said Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has said that 28 percent of those who have been released from Guantanamo have returned to the terrorism battlefield. He said that was “an inconvenient fact” for those advocating closing Guantanamo and releasing at least some of the 166 detainees held there.
In questioning one witness who called for closing Guantanamo, retired Army Gen. Paul Eaton, Cruz asked whether there’s any reason to think that if those now held at Guantanamo were released, their recidivism rate would be any less than 28 percent.
Eaton told Cruz he had spent his military career weighing and managing risks. “Soldiers never get all the assets they need to buy risks down to zero. The question, I believe, could also be posed: Is the existence of Guantanamo a higher risk than the release of the prisoners we have there now?”
Eaton said U.S. intelligence agencies “will help us buy down the risk” of repatriating detainees to their home countries or some other country.”
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., told the hearing that Guantanamo is “a massive waste of money,” noting that that it costs $2.67 million per detainee to hold a prisoner there, but only $78,000 a year to keep one in a maximum security federal prison.
Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., the senior Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee who testified at the hearing, told the panel that “there is literally no benefit to keeping Guantanamo Bay open.” The detainees could safely be held in the United States.
And he indicated some impatience that his arguments and those of Obama don’t seem to be getting through to some Americans: “It has been just stupefying to me … the degree to which people seem to be unaware that we already hold hundreds of terrorists in the United States in super-max prisons,” including Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the man who tried to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight over Detroit on Christmas Day of 2009.
And Navy Lt. Josh Fryday, who represents an Afghan detainee held at Guantanamo for over 10 years, told the committee that he tells his client that the U.S. government believes it is allowed to detain prisoners indefinitely until the war is over. “He then asks me, ‘you will no longer be at war with Afghanistan after 2014. Can I go home then? Or does this war never end?'”
Noting that he was speaking only for himself and not representing the views of the Defense Department, Fryday told the panel that not allowing his client to have a trial was “at odds with our values.”
As subcommittee chairman Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., noted “the president’s authority has been limited by Congress. The enacted restrictions on detainee transfers – including a ban on transfers to the United States from Guantanamo – has made it very difficult, if not impossible, to actually close the facility. It’s time to lift those restrictions and move forward with shutting down Guantanamo.”
The possibility of some compromise that might bring the two sides together on Guantanamo seems remote – a point underscored by the vote on Tuesday in the House when Rep Jim Moran, D-Va., offered an amendment to the Defense appropriations bill for Fiscal Year 2014. Moran’s amendment would have allowed the U.S. military to transfer or release the detainees who have been cleared by the intelligence community and the Joint Chiefs of Staff to their home countries and to bring those not cleared for release to the United States for trial.
By a vote of 247 to 175 the House rejected Moran’s amendment, with 25 Democrats voting against it and four Republicans voting for it.