Citing the terrorist attacks in Paris, newly empowered Republican senators on Tuesday proposed restrictions on President Barack Obama's ability to transfer terror suspects out of the U.S. prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, for the remainder of his term. The White House acknowledged that congressional action makes it difficult for Obama to fulfill his goal of closing the facility.
“Now is not the time to be emptying Guantánamo,” Sen. Kelly Ayotte told reporters at a news conference in which she warned of fresh threats, bemoaned recent releases from the U.S. Navy base prison to other countries and introduced far-reaching legislation.
Obama has pushed to close Guantánamo since his inauguration in January 2009, but has faced strong opposition from congressional Republicans and some Democrats who argue that the facility is the ideal location for terror suspects since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
The recent strikes in France that left 17 dead were repeatedly mentioned as Ayotte and three other Republican senators — Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, Intelligence panel chairman Richard Burr and Lindsey Graham — widely criticized the administration's drive to close Guantánamo.
“When we look at Paris and see it in real time ... anybody at Guantánamo is a legitimate source to go to” for questioning about intelligence information, Burr said.
McCain said the administration has failed to produce a plan on handling the Guantánamo population — now numbering 127 foreign men, nine facing trial and one already convicted of a crime. He said that with strong support from House Republicans, his committee would move swiftly on the bill.
Graham added that the detainees would not be let out “to plan another 9/11,” a reference to terror attacks against the U.S. in 2001.
The legislation would bar transfers to Yemen for two years, 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 reduce the population at Guantánamo.
The bill would prohibit transfers of terror suspects to foreign countries if there has been a confirmed case where an individual was transferred from Guantánamo and engaged in any terrorist activity.
The administration has been transferring detainees cleared for movement to other countries. Five men who were held for a dozen years without charge at Guantánamo were sent to the Central Asian nation of Kazakhstan for resettlement Dec. 30.
Nearly 30 prisoners were resettled in third countries last year as part of Obama's renewed push to close the detention center.
The administration is widely expected to object to the legislation. At the White House, spokesman Josh Earnest said lawmakers in both parties “have put in place obstacles that have made it very difficult for the president to succeed in the goal that he has laid out to close the prison at Guantánamo Bay.”
The nation's top military leader, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, said this past weekend that Guantánamo should be closed, describing it as in the national interest and calling it “a psychological scar on our national values.”
In a major broadside, McCain dismissed the comments of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, describing Dempsey as wrong on this issue as he was about Syrian President Bashar Assad's tenure and other national security issues. He said Dempsey's opinions carry no weight with him.
Associated Press writer Nedra Pickler contributed to this report.