GOP ratchets up debate over closing Guantánamo

05/07/2009 5:42 PM

07/30/2013 5:26 PM

WASHINGTON — Republicans on Thursday amped up opposition to President Barack Obama's plan to close the prison camps at Guantánamo Bay, even as Attorney General Eric Holder sought to reassure senators that the United States won't release anyone it considers a terrorist.

Holder's remarks came during a Senate budget hearing in which Democratic and Republican senators sought reassurance about the administration's plans to relocate the 241 inmates now confined to the detention camp in Cuba.

Across the Capitol, Republican leaders in the House of Representatives introduced what they called the "Keep Terrorists out of America Act," legislation aimed at thwarting the administration's efforts to close the controversial camp. It would require a state governor or legislature first to approve any transfer or release of a detainee into that state.

"The world suddenly did not become safer on Jan. 20, 2009," said House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio. "Our constituents don't want these terrorists in their neighborhoods."

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky carried the message to the Senate floor, saying that Republican concerns "are rooted in the fact that Americans like the fact that we haven't been attacked at home since 9/11, and they don't want the terrorists at Guantánamo back on the battlefield or in their backyards."

Of the 779 people who've been imprisoned at Guantánamo, 538 already have been released or transferred to other countries for detention or trial, the vast majority of them by the Bush administration.

Holder told the Senate that the administration has three task forces looking at how to handle the detainees. He didn't rule out detainees being brought to U.S. soil, but he promised Democratic Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland that the agency would consult with state and local officials if it decided to use any U.S. facilities. Mikulski supports Obama's plan to empty the Guantánamo prison camps.

"Paramount in our concern is the safety of the American people," Holder told Mikulski. "We are not going to put at risk the safety of the people of this country."

Obama has said that closing the camps within a year will improve U.S. standing around the world.

Republicans circulated news releases Thursday with pictures of 10 of the best-known Guantánamo detainees and accused the president of seeking to fulfill a campaign pledge without first developing a plan for "hundreds of the world's most dangerous terrorists."

"We are trying to solve an image problem at the expense of human lives," said Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee.

At the White House, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said he hadn't yet seen the House bill. In addition to requiring approval from state governments, the bill would require "strict criteria and certification standards" before a detainee could be brought to the United States.

Holder told Alabama Republican Sen. Richard Shelby that the United States wouldn't release anyone it considers a terrorist, but he added, "Some (detainees) are going to be released. Some are going to be tried. Some will be detained on a fairly extended basis.

"And so those who will be released are those who we think can be released and be released on a safe basis."

At issue, in part, is the definition of a terrorist. The Obama administration has said it's willing to bring to the United States some of 17 Uighur Muslims at Guantánamo whose release a federal judge ordered last year. The Uighurs are Chinese citizens who fear persecution if they're returned to their homeland.

The Bush administration's Justice Department concluded last year that the Uighurs were no longer "enemy combatants" and were eligible for release, but some Republican leaders have continued to cast them as terrorists.

Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., long an advocate of Uighur rights, wrote to Obama this week expressing his "grave concern" that the Uighurs' release onto U.S. soil "could directly threaten the security of the American people."

Carol Rosenberg of The Miami Herald contributed to this article from Miami.

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