WASHINGTON — The fiery debate over whether to close the Guantanamo Bay prison sparked anew Thursday as the Obama administration pushed back against a bill to restrict it from transferring terror subjects to other countries, while protesters in orange jumpsuits shouted it should be shuttered posthaste.
Brian McKeon, principal deputy undersecretary of defense for policy, said a bill proposed by four powerful GOP senators would effectively ban most transfers from Guantanamo for two years, placing a roadblock in President Barack Obama's stepped-up effort to winnow the prison's population and eventually close it.
"Because this legislation, if enacted, would effectively block progress toward the goal of closing the Guantanamo Bay detention center, the administration opposes it," McKeon told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Republican Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas argued against closure.
"In my opinion, the only problem of Guantanamo Bay is there are too many empty beds and cells there right now," Cotton said. "We should be sending more terrorists there for further interrogation to keep the country safe. As far as I'm concerned, every last one of them can rot in hell, but as long as they don't do that, then they can rot in Guantanamo Bay!"
Nearly a dozen protesters, dressed in orange jumpsuits and T-shirts that read "Shut down Gitmo," were just as passionate.
One male protester stood up in the middle of the hearing and shouted that some of the detainees are innocent of their alleged crimes and should never have been held at all. "Let's have the rule of law back," he yelled as he was led out of the hearing.
When Obama took office six years ago, there were 242 detainees at Guantanamo Bay. Today there are 122. Of those, 54 are eligible for transfer, 10 are being prosecuted or have been sentenced and the cases of the other 58 are being reviewed.
McKeon said Obama and his national security team think continued operation of the detention center drains U.S. coffers, damages America's relationship with key allies and provides fodder violent extremists can use to incite violence and woo recruits.
Republican Sens. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, John McCain of Arizona, Richard Burr of North Carolina and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina have introduced legislation to legally reinstate a ban on detainees being transferred to Yemen during Obama's remaining two years in office. Many of the remaining detainees at the prison are from Yemen, which is engulfed in turmoil and is home to al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.
The bill also would suspend the transfer of high- or medium-risk terror suspects for the same period and repeal current law that has allowed the administration to transfer prisoners to foreign countries. And it would prohibit transfers of terror suspects to foreign countries if there has been a confirmed case where an individual was transferred from Guantanamo and engaged in any terrorist activity. Committee Chairman McCain said the bill would be marked up next week.
Ayotte asked if any of the five Taliban prisoners released in May 2014 in exchange for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl had re-engaged in the fight. She said all five were top Taliban officials and noted reaction from Afghanistan when Mohammad Fazl, former chief of staff of the army under the Taliban, was released.
"One of the Taliban commanders on the ground in (Afghanistan's) Helmand province said it's the best news he had heard in 12 years. He said Fazl's return is like pouring 10,000 Taliban fighters into the battle on the side of the jihad. Now the Taliban have the right lion to lead them in the final moment before victory in Afghanistan," she said.
McKeon said that despite recent reports, none of the five Taliban detainees released for Bergdahl has "returned to the battlefield." There had been news reports that one tried to re-engage in the fight and that others had spoken with members of the al-Qaida-affiliated Haqqani network, but McKeon said all five continue to be monitored in Qatar. Qatar agreed to monitor their activities for a year, but they will be free after that.
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