Obama’s Speech Rehashes Gitmo Fight in Congress

Stacy Kaper

President Obama’s counterterrorism speech has reopened a long-standing battle on Capitol Hill about what to do with detainees at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, highlighting sharp divisions even among the president’s political adversaries.

Influential national-security leaders in the GOP--Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., and Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H.--joined together in a press conference after the speech to criticize the president’s leadership on foreign policy. But differences emerged among them on how to handle the military prison.

Like many Republicans, Chambliss, the vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee and a member of the Armed Services Committee, expressed strong opposition to the administration’s efforts to close Guantanamo Bay.

“I have been one to advocate maintaining Guantanamo Bay, and my reason’s pretty simple,” Chambliss said, while Ayotte nodded her head vigorously in agreement. “If we were to capture some of the Benghazi terrorists who we know today are running free, what are we going to do with them? We have no place to take them. Are we going to bring them into [a constitutional court]? Are we going to trust the Libyans to prosecute them?”

But McCain took a conciliatory tack on that issue.

“In light of the president’s speech, we will pledge our willingness to work with the president to see that Guantanamo Bay is closed,” he said. “I am willing to sit down and discuss how we could do this because I believe Guantanamo Bay is a terrible, terrible, image of the United States of America throughout, in particular, the Arab world. And we can disagree on that, but all of us are in agreement--until we have some kind of a plan from the administration, then the status quo has to remain.”

The struggle the White House has had in providing a detailed plan to Congress outlining how it envisions shuttering the Guantanamo Bay facility clearly remains a chief point of contention for lawmakers on both the Right and the Left.

“On Guantanamo Bay, the president says he wants it closed. I want it closed. It’s been way too long. So let’s come in with a workable plan to close Guantanamo Bay,” said Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., matter-of-factly.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., offered a similar statement.

“I would certainly like to hear a proposal for how he is going to accomplish what he has laid out,” she said. “If it is to close Guantanamo--which I agree we should do--how we are going to make that happen?”

Obama’s announcement about his intentions to lift a transfer ban and release detainees to Yemen also ignited fresh debate about how the U.S. can ensure security given concerns about the stability of the region, particularly sustained threats from al-Qaida.

Ayotte argued that the State Department and Obama himself continue to warn Americans about the terrorism threat in Yemen. She said that if Obama wants to release detainees there, he should be forced to use a system for waivers that Congress created in the defense authorization law, but not expect Congress to rescind the standards it set.

The waiver process requires the administration to certify to Congress on an individual basis that releasing a detainee is in the security interests of the U.S., and that the government can mitigate the risks of the terrorist reengaging or escaping (if he or she is detained elsewhere).

“This issue of transferring to Yemen is very troubling, given the history we have with Yemen and the terrorist activity there,” Ayotte said. “We don’t need to repeal a process we’ve given them. If they want to exercise it, justify to Congress why these individuals will not present a national-security risk if we transfer them.”