Republican lawmakers said Wednesday that Tuesday’s deadly terror attacks in Belgium showed the folly of President Barack Obama’s bid to shutter the detention center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
In another sign of the political head winds Obama faces in trying to fulfill a campaign pledge, the Pentagon’s point man on the military prison acknowledged that in at least one previous instance, freed detainees had killed Americans.
“What I can tell you is unfortunately there have been Americans that have died because of [released] Gitmo detainees,” Paul Lewis, chief envoy on Guantanamo for the Defense Department, said in response to a question from Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-California.
Lewis added: “Sir, when anybody dies, it’s a tragedy, and we don’t want anybody to die because we transfer detainees.”
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An unnamed Obama administration official later told The Associated Press that Lewis was referring to an incident involving an Afghan prisoner who’d been released from the detention center during the administration of President George W. Bush.
During the contentious hearing, GOP members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee forcefully questioned Lewis and his State Department counterpart, Lee Wolosky.
The hearing had been scheduled before Tuesday’s attacks in Brussels, which killed 34 people and wounded 270. But the attacks added urgency to the proceedings, which were called to assess a plan that the Pentagon made public last month to close the Guantánamo detention center and transfer remaining prisoners to the United States.
... Terrorists flip on a camera so the whole world can see, parade some innocent prisoner dressed in an orange jumpsuit and cut off his head or light him on fire. The orange jumpsuits weren’t selected by accident. Everyone knows what they symbolize.
Rep. Eliot Engel, D-New York
After Lewis and Wolosky reiterated Obama’s assertions that U.S. allies want to see Guantánamo closed because it’s a recruiting tool for terrorists, Rohrabacher adopted a mocking, weepy tone in criticizing their concerns.
“This idea that the people of the world, oh, they’re so upset with us that it’s a recruiting vehicle that we’ve kept terrorists who murder innocent people in Gitmo — well, you know what?” Rohrabacher said. “I think the bigger recruiting tool today is when our government, especially this administration, is perceived as being weak.”
Rohrabacher suggested that the terror attacks in Paris in November and in Brussels on Tuesday might change the thinking of European partners.
“Let me suggest that that attitude of our European friends may well be changing in the next six months or so when they realize that the slaughter that’s taken place in Paris and now in Brussels is part of an international movement to destroy Western civilization and replace it with a caliphate,” he said.
Even before the Brussels attacks, Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump had pushed the detention and interrogation of alleged terrorists to the campaign’s forefront by saying he would ask Congress to change current bans on waterboarding and other forms of abusive treatment.
Rep. Eliot Engel of New York, senior Democrat on the committee, said federal civilian courts had convicted more than 500 people on terrorism charges since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. By comparison, he noted that Guantánamo military commission proceedings against Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the self-professed 9/11 mastermind, and four other alleged plotters have been hung up for years, with the trial not expected to start until 2020.
Part of the delay has been due to defense lawyers’ claims that treatment of the 9/11 suspects has fatally tainted the case against them.
With Trump pushing a return to abusive interrogations and the National Republican Congressional Committee targeting Democratic incumbents in the House of Representatives who support closing Guantánamo, Engel was the only member of his party who voiced strong support at the hearing for Obama’s closure plan.
“For terrorists seeking to recruit more fighters into their ranks, the Guantánamo facility is a gift that keeps on giving,” Engel said. “This prison has become so infamous and so reviled that our enemies no longer even need to call it by name. Instead, as we’ve seen again and again, terrorists flip on a camera so the whole world can see, parade some innocent prisoner dressed in an orange jumpsuit and cut off his head or light him on fire. The orange jumpsuits weren’t selected by accident. Everyone knows what they symbolize.”
Committee Chairman Ed Royce, R-Calif., ridiculed the idea that Guantánamo helps the Islamic State and other terror groups draw followers.
“I don’t think that if you were standing in line in Raqqa to recruit into ISIS, you say, ‘Oh, Guantánamo Bay is going to be closed, no need to enlist here,’ ” he said. Raqqa, in Syria, is the Islamic State’s de facto capital.
Wolosky noted that Bush wrote in his 2010 memoirs wrote that he wanted to close Guantánamo because “the detention facility had become a propaganda tool for our enemies and a distraction for our allies.”
Wolosky added that seven former secretaries of state, going back to Henry Kissinger under Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, support closing the detention facility.
Ninety-one prisoners remain at Guantánamo; 532 detainees were transferred to other countries during the Bush administration and 156 by the Obama administration.
Republicans also used the Guantánamo hearing to amplify their criticism of Obama’s just-concluded visit to Havana, the first by a sitting U.S. president since Calvin Coolidge in 1928.
Rep. Matt Salmon, an Arizona Republican, criticized the president for “yucking it up with FARC terrorists at a baseball game yesterday when Europe is under siege by terrorists,” a reference to the presence of Colombian guerrillas who are in Cuba negotiating an end to their 50-year-old conflict with the Colombian government.