White House official, senators tour Guantánamo

President Barack Obama’s chief of staff toured the Guantánamo detention center on Friday with Senators Dianne Feinstein and John McCain — and all three promptly issued a joint statement supporting closure of the controversial prison camps in southeast Cuba.

“We continue to believe that it is in our national interest to end detention at Guantánamo, with a safe and orderly transition of the detainees to other locations,” the trio said in a release Friday evening.

“We intend to work, with a plan by Congress and the Administration together, to take the steps necessary to make that happen.”

The trip took place as Navy medical staff were force-feeding 41 of the 104 hunger strikers among 166 captives in the prison camps.

In response, Republican Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, who outranks McCain on the Senate Armed Services Committee, called the latest push to close the detention center a capitulation “because the terrorists have begun a hunger strike.”

Inhofe said in a statement Saturday that it was especially “unwise” to allow captives at Guantánamo who allegedly conspired in the Sept. 11 attacks to be transferred to the United States. “These terrorists certainly cannot be allowed to infiltrate our federal prison system where they could continue to spread violent extremism from within our borders.”

“Guantánamo Bay remains the safest, most secure facility to continue housing and trying terrorists and enemy combatants,” he said.

Friday’s brief statement by Feinstein, McCain and White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, made no mention of the protest that has stretched prison staff to the point where the Pentagon is sending reinforcements and seeking to grow the guard force and other staff to 2,000 troops and civilians. But the trio did mention “their dedicated service in detaining the 166 individuals here in a safe and respectful way.”

It was believed to be a first trip for Obama’s Chief of Staff — and the first by a member of the president’s inner-circle since Attorney General Eric Holder visited there in February 2009.

McCain, the no. 2 Republican on the Senate Armed Service Committee, and Feinstein the Democratic chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, toured the prison in the early years after it was set up by the Bush administration.

At the White House, national security spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said McDonough visited the prison with Feinstein and McCain “to review the situation there and discuss the steps that we can take with the Congress to meet the president’s goal of closing the facility.”

Also making the day trip, according to military sources, was William Lietzau, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for detainee affairs.

Feinstein recently called upon Obama to lift his moratorium on transfer of any of the 90 or so Yemeni detainees at Guantánamo, advice he adopted.

McCain, a former Vietnam War POW, campaigned for president in 2008 with a promise to close the camps and suggestion that the prisoners might be moved to Fort Leavenworth in Kansas. Once he lost, and Obama was elected, he criticized the president’s executive order for closure in his first year in office, saying he had not put a plan in place that satisfied Congress.

At the prison, Navy Capt. Robert Durand confirmed the latest visit by members of Congress, which he noted included Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., last May and Reps. Michelle Bachmann, R-Minn.; Mike Pompeo, R-Kan.; and Judy Chu, D-Calif., two weeks ago.

“We are glad to once again welcome Senators Feinstein and McCain, both of whom have previously visited, “ said Durand, “and Mr. McDonough.”

The visit included a briefing by the prison camps commander, Navy Rear Adm. John Smith, where Durand said “our mission, resources and current operations” was likely discussed. The trio also said they inspected some of the “detention facilities” but did not say specifically if they visited Camp 7, the clandestine prison building that holds alleged 9/11 conspirator Khalid Sheik Mohammed and 14 other former CIA captives. U.S. military officials say the building, which has never been shown to reporters, has structural problems and want to replace it.

Read more Guantánamo stories from the Miami Herald

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