The Obama administration announced Friday that it will revive military commissions — with added legal protections — to try some of the 241 detainees held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. It is part of a drive to close the facility early next year.
One detainee was flown to France on Friday, but President Obama has not yet said where the others will go. Republicans on Capitol Hill have seized on the issue, warning that suspected terrorists may soon be headed for the U.S. mainland.
Nearly every day that the Senate has been in session for the past three weeks, Republican leader Mitch McConnell has risen to deliver what is essentially the same speech. The subject: closing Guantanamo. The message: bad idea.
"The administration has said that when it comes to Guantanamo, its highest priority is the safety of the American people," McConnell said Thursday on the Senate floor. "But safety is our top concern. Madame President, the administration should rethink its plan to transfer terrorists to American communities."
Kansas Republican Sam Brownback joined in sounding the alarm — some Guantanamo detainees, he warned, may end up at the maximum-security military prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kan.
"Because you move the detainees to Fort Leavenworth, in a place where we're not set to handle it, it's going to cost hundreds of millions of dollars," Brownback says. "If you could even put a facility there that would be safe from terrorists, the people in the community are going to feel very threatened — this is in an urban environment, an urban setting, and for what? Why are we doing this?"
Kansas House Republican Todd Tiahrt echoed that not-in-my-backyard theme. He did so while imploring fellow lawmakers last week to block any funds for transferring Guantanamo inmates to the U.S.
"I think if you go back to Main Street in your district and you stop the first 10 people that come into your office or that you see at the grocery store and you say, 'Do you think we ought to release terrorists from Guantanamo Bay in our city? Yes or no?' "
But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid disagrees.
"The Republicans need to get another set of talking points. They have marched down to the Senate floor often and said that very same thing: 'We don't want these detainees walking the streets of America,' or words to that effect," he says. "Well, nor does anyone else. Let President Obama execute his plan."
But the problem for Democrats defending the president is that they can't say what his plan is. Appearing Thursday before the House Judiciary Committee, Attorney General Eric Holder did not shed much light on the fate of the Guantanamo detainees.
"At this point, we have not made any determinations, any final decisions as to what is going to happen with regard to any of the 241 people," Holder said.
A supplemental spending bill passed by the House on Thursday had none of the $80 million the Obama administration had requested for closing Guantanamo. Democrat John Murtha says the reason is simple.
"What we did was take the money out and said, 'Before you get the money, we want you to give us a plan,' " Murtha says.
The Senate does have the $80 million for Guantanamo in its supplemental spending bill up for debate next week, but with Republicans on the offensive, Democrats say they will withhold that money until President Obama sends Congress a detailed plan for shutting down Guantanamo and relocating its inmates.