Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2009/04/holder-obama.jpgAttorney General Eric Holder and President Barack Obama (AP Photo)
Republicans at the House Judiciary Committee hearing on Thursday repeatedly pressed Attorney General Eric Holder on how he could reconcile closing the Guantanamo Bay prison camp by the end of the year and still keep Americans safe, signaling that Republicans will make it extremely difficult for President Obama to keep this particular promise made on the first day of his presidency.
As TWI has written before, the Obama administration faces huge hurdles to closing Guantanamo, from deciding how to try those suspected of crimes to what to do with detainees cleared for release but who can’t be returned home. These include some of the detainees from Yemen, which is politically unstable and racked by terrorism, and the Uighurs, a group of Chinese Muslims who cannot return to China for fear of persecution but who Republicans don’t want released into the United States either.
House Republicans made clear at the hearing on Thursday that they would oppose any proposals to release Guantanamo detainees into the United States, even if they’ve been cleared of all claims of wrongdoing by the administration, or ordered released by a federal court.
Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), for example, the Ranking Republican on the Committee, on Thursday reminded Holder that he’d promised not to release terrorists into the United States, and asked: “Do you consider individuals who were trained at terrorist training camps to be terrorists?”
Holder said he’d have to make an individualized determination.
Smith pressed on: “If someone is a member of a group the United States considers a terrorist group are they a terrorist?” he asked, referring to the Uighurs, who were allegedly involved in weapons training in Afghanistan but have denied membership in the East Turkistan Islamic Movement, which China and the United States consider a terrorist organization. The Uighurs at Guantanamo Bay oppose the Chinese government that has oppressed them, but not the United States.
Holder responded: “One of the great justices in the Supreme Court was a member of the Ku Klux Klan at some point,” he said, referring to Justice Hugo Black,”so being a member at some point in a group doesn’t always mean,” one still poses a danger, he said.
Smith: “I think someone trained in the use of weapons against innocent civilians and membership in a terrorist groups, I‘d consider to be a terrorist.”
Holder: “If you lay it out that way I’d agree.”
Holder faced similar questioning from Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), who asked Holder if he would announce to the American people “which of the 241 [prisoners at Guantanamo Bay] are terrorists?”
Holder said he’s in the process of trying to determine that now.
In fact, President Obama’s plans to close Guantanamo, although embraced even by Defense Secretary Robert Gates during the Bush administration and by Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain, has become a focus of the GOP’s criticism of Obama and attempt to paint him as ready and willing to endanger American lives in the name of a vague principle or campaign promise.
Take this exchange with Rep. Ted Poe, (R-Texas), who asked Holder on Thursday if he would approve of waterboarding if it was the only way to extract life-saving information from a terrorist? Poe said that the alleged 9-11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Muhammed provided valuable information to interrogators only after he was waterboarded, an assumption that Holder refused to confirm or deny.
Holder responded: “The question is whether or not other techniques might have gotten us the same result and might not have taken us down the road of using a procedure that I think is torture.
Poe continued to insist, however, that “but for waterboarding there is absolutely no evidence that we would have received this information that would have prevented two attacks.” As Media Matters has pointed out, that claim — first put forward by former Bush speechwriter Marc Thiessen on Fox News — has been debunked by FBI agents and counterterrorism experts. KSM himself also told the International Committee of the Red Cross that he “gave a lot of false information . . . to make the ill-treatment stop.” And as Marcy Wheeler at Emptywheel wrote, “it took them 183 applications of the waterboard in a one month period to get what they claimed was cooperation out of KSM. That doesn’t sound very effective to me.”
Holder responded that he “has great faith in the FBI techniques” that do not involve waterboarding and that he “would never put Americans at risk or the values of this country,” noting that George Washington refused to torture prisoners when they were captured regardless of how the British treated prisoners. But the intense questioning from Republicans continued.
Perhaps because of this pressure, Holder has repeatedly said the the administration is considering holding some prisoners indefinitely — albeit in the United States — and yesterday suggested that he believes the president has the power to detain suspects indefinitely within the United States under his powers as commander in chief during wartime. The Obama administration has avoided using the Bush rhetoric of the “war on terror”, but it has not relinquished the idea that it is fighting a global war and can exercise its military powers anywhere to fight it. Although the Obama administration has renounced many of the controversial Office of Legal Counsel memos drafted by the Department of Justice under President Bush, this broad notion of executive power is similar to an argument made by John Yoo in an October 2001 OLC memo.
Even holding prisoners indefinitely isn’t going to satisfy Republicans if they’re being held on U.S. soil, though, as many members of Congress reminded Holder on Thursday. Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Va.) was particularly perturbed that Holder had not “made an assessment of the potential risk to localities if you release these terrorists into the United States.”
Rep. Howard Coble (R-N.C.) added that he’s heard that some Guantanamo detainees will be released into the United States and will need government assistance. “Will the administration allow or encourage the use of taxpayer money to be used to provide welfare to detainees released from Guantanamo?” he asked Holder.
Holder responded, as he did throughout the hearing, that “no final decision has been made as to what will happen to the detainees.”
“Well, I don’t want to be portrayed as an inflexible red neck,” Coble said, “but I think that it would not be a good idea.”