The Obama administration’s detention of a high-profile terrorist suspect aboard a Navy vessel drew sharp opposition Tuesday among Republicans in Congress, who said Abu Anas al-Libi should be sent to the U.S. prison at Guantánamo Bay for indefinite interrogation.
Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham, Kelly Ayotte and Saxby Chambliss said intelligence officials need far more than a couple of months at sea to sufficiently question al-Libi over the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Africa and any other al-Qaida terrorist plots he participated in. They also called a potential civilian trial in New York for al-Libi misguided.
“Putting him on a Navy vessel for a matter of days or weeks is not a proper way to gather intelligence in the war on terror,” Graham said at a news conference in the Capitol. “The best tool we have in intelligence gathering is time itself.”
Graham, from South Carolina, cited the years of intelligence work that enabled U.S. special forces to kill al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in 2011. “Contrary to popular belief, what led to the bin Laden raid was not information obtained from torture,” Graham said. “It was from good, long, hard intelligence gathering from Gitmo detainees.”
Al-Libi, one of the FBI’s most wanted terrorists, was captured Saturday in Libya.
Questioning him aboard a U.S. warship in international waters is President Barack Obama’s answer to Bush administration detention policies he has vowed to end. Obama has sought to close Guantánamo and shift trials to U.S. civilian courts, but has run into fierce resistance from Republicans and some Democrats over the last five years.
For the administration, keeping al-Libi at sea gives intelligence officials time to interrogate him before he is brought to the United States and provided access to lawyers. And it avoids shining the spotlight on the prison at Guantánamo, which despite improvements remains a black mark on America’s reputation around the world.
New Hampshire’s Ayotte defended Guantánamo as a “top-rate detention facility” and accused the administration of risking the loss of valuable intelligence from al-Libi, who was once a close confidant of bin Laden. She said she would try to raise the issue of detention policy in legislation later this year, so that a strategy is in place should the U.S. one day capture bin Laden’s successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri.
Some Democrats are backing the administration’s approach.
“I support a civilian prosecution and hope that the administration will resist any call to bring al-Libi before a military commission,” said Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., a member of the House intelligence committee.