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US Lawmakers Want Guantanamo Bay Detention Center Kept Open

Senators Kelly Ayotte (r) and Joseph Lieberman on Capitol Hill, May 11, 2011
Senators Kelly Ayotte (r) and Joseph Lieberman on Capitol Hill, May 11, 2011
Michael Bowman

Days after the Obama administration renewed its vow to close the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, a group of mostly-Republican Senators is introducing legislation that would keep the facility open and designate it as the primary U.S. location for holding and interrogating high-value terror suspects.  

More than two years into the Obama administration, the president’s initial one-year target for closing the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay has long expired.  Now some U.S. lawmakers want to ensure the facility remains open for years to come.

Independent Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut calls it a matter of common sense.

“The prison there has played and continues to play a critical role in keeping America safe," said Lieberman. "Some of the most dangerous terrorists in the world are held at Guantanamo, many of whom would no doubt return to the battlefield to attack Americans if they were released.”

Republican Senator Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire says there is no need to scrap the facility and every reason to keep it.  She and several of her Senate colleagues announced the introduction of legislation Wednesday that would codify Guantanamo Bay’s status as the primary U.S. location for holding and interrogating suspected terrorism detainees.

“It [the bill] reaffirms Guantanamo Bay as the facility that should remain open, not only for those who are currently detained, but for those who are captured in the future," said Ayotte. "It permanently limits the transfer of detainees to foreign countries, and it permanently prohibits funding for the construction of terrorist detention facilities within the United States of America.”

The detention center was opened shortly after the United States invaded Afghanistan, following the 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.  Constructed with open-air wire fencing and no plumbing, the original facility led some observers to compare it to a massive dog kennel.  It has been rebuilt several times and now stands as one of the most-modern prisons operated by the U.S. government, affording each detainee a bed, toilet, Muslim worship materials, and a Muslim-appropriate diet.

Recently, Attorney General Eric Holder restated the Obama administration’s intention to close the Guantanamo Bay facility.  Holder gave no timeframe for when that might occur, but he said that doing so would enhance U.S. national security.  Critics have long-described the center as a blight on America’s international reputation, and as a potent propaganda and recruiting tool for terrorist organizers.

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina says the reality is far different.

“What does the [American] war fighter do tomorrow, if we are fortunate enough to capture someone that we need to hold?  The options are getting limited for our special forces," said Graham. "Without a jail, they are pushed to kill people they would otherwise like to capture.  Or they do exactly what we are trying to prevent - renditioning people [sending them to other countries for interrogation].”

Senator Lieberman says that keeping Guantanamo Bay open is even more critical since U.S. forces killed terrorist leader Osama bin Laden and seized massive amounts of information at his hideout in Pakistan.

“The new intelligence collected in the raid on bin Laden’s compound increases the likelihood that more terrorists will be captured in the near future," he said. "And we are going to want to have a safe, first-rate facility in which we can house these people in order to keep them off the battlefield and gain intelligence from them.”

Similar legislation is expected to be considered in the House of Representatives as part of the annual U.S. Defense Authorization Bill.

Earlier this year, the Obama administration announced the reinstitution of military commissions for trying detained alleged co-conspirators in the 2001 terrorist attacks.

In March, Senators Lieberman and Graham introduced legislation that would authorize U.S. presidents to detain suspected terrorists and mandate military custody of detainees unless the secretary of defense certifies that civilian control is preferable.   

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