Terror suspects being held at the Guantánamo prison camp should be sent home or brought to the United States for trial or continued open-ended detention in American prisons, a Senate subcommittee was told Wednesday.
The recommendation came from the president of the Washington-based group Human Rights First, which has long campaigned to shut down the terror prison camp at the US naval base in Cuba.
“It is a risk-management exercise, and the risk is manageable,” Elisa Massimino told the Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights.
“This is something on which the president and Congress have to work together,” she said. “Congress needs to trust the commander-in-chief to make these decisions.”
The hearing marked the first time in five years the issue has been debated by members of the Judiciary Committee. But it remains unclear whether the hearing reflects a genuine shift in momentum toward closure of the controversial prison camp, or whether it was just an opportunity for debate.
President Obama pledged as a candidate five years ago that closing Guantánamo would be among his first actions if elected president. But Congress responded by imposing a series of restrictions that made it impossible for his administration to follow through with the promise.
Now, some members of Congress are hopeful that a new effort to close the prison camp will take root.
“It is time to end this sad chapter in our history,” Sen. Dick Durban (D) of Illinois said at the start of the hearing. “Eleven years is too long.”
While several Democratic members of the subcommittee participated in the hearing, only one Republican, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, attended.
Senator Cruz does not support the closure of Guantánamo. “President Obama tells us the war on terror is over and we can now take a holiday,” he said. “I don’t believe the facts justify that rosy assessment.”
Cruz accused those favoring the closing of Guantánamo of pushing a utopian fiction that the released detainees would go home, lay down their arms, and embrace global peace.
“We have seen in Boston, Benghazi, and Fort Hood that radical terrorism remains a real and live threat,” he said.
At issue is what to do with the 166 detainees who remain at the Guantánamo detention camp. Most of the detainees have been held at the camp without charge or trial since it opened in early 2002. In protest more than 100 of them have participated in a five-month hunger strike.
Ms. Massimino said her organization had developed an exit strategy. She urged the White House to develop a comprehensive plan and to use the ongoing debate over the National Defense Authorization Act to authorize the transfer of detainees to the US for prosecution or continued detention.
The Human Rights First plan calls for the president to veto any legislation that would restrict his authority to transfer terror suspects to the US or to a foreign country.
Many members of Congress have vehemently objected to any effort to bring terror suspects from Guantánamo to the US.
Of the 166 detainees at Guantánamo, 86 have been cleared for transfer to countries overseas. In addition, 34 detainees have been charged with criminal violations or are being considered for such charges.
The final 46 detainees have been deemed impossible to charge but too dangerous to release.
Under the Human Rights First plan, the 34 detainees would be transferred to the US for trial, either by military commission or in the federal courts. The 46 individuals slated for indefinite detention would be held in maximum security prisons until they were deemed safe to release or an end to the war required it.
Sen. Diane Feinstein (D) of California said she supports closing the prison camp and transferring detainees to the US.
She said she traveled to Guantánamo last month to review the facility. She said she witnessed the ongoing five-month hunger strike and the protocol used by medical staff to force-feed the prisoners. Senator Feinstein said the procedure was inhumane and amounted to a breech of medical ethics.
Feinstein said that the detention camp at Guantánamo cost $554 million to run in fiscal year 2013 – or roughly $2.67 million per detainee. That compares with $78,000 per inmate in a maximum security federal prison, she said.
“I want to point out this is a massive waste of money,” the senator said.
Retired US Army Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton testified that the continued operation of Guantánamo is counter-productive for national security. He said it makes the detainees look like the warriors they are not, and it has become an effective recruitment tool for militant Muslim groups.
“There is no national security reason to keep Guantánamo open,” he said.
Frank Gaffney, president of the Center for Security Policy, warned the subcommittee that a high number of detainees released from Guantánamo would likely rejoin the fight against the US.
If they are released, they will wage jihad against the US, he said.
Cruz said that as of January 2013, US intelligence estimates that 28 percent of the detainees previously released from Guantánamo have rejoined the fight. He suggested that the remaining detainees currently at Guantánamo are probably even more prone to fight once released.
General Eaton suggested that lawmakers consider a larger question – whether the existence of Guantánamo presents a higher risk to national security than the individual detainees who have been approved for release but remain in custody.
“I spent a career managing risk,” he said. Freeing the 86 detainees already cleared for release would pose a relatively low risk, although not zero, the general said.
Cruz responded that the risk of recidivism would remain at zero if the detainees stayed at Guantánamo.
Massimino urged the subcommittee to focus on the broader objective, the broader risk. She said some of the detainees might cause harm and pose a threat once free. But that threat is insignificant compared to the hundreds of thousands of other angry young men in the Muslim world prepared to fight the US.
“Guantánamo does nothing to solve that problem. It probably makes it worse,” she said.