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Republicans Seize on Uighurs for Anti-Gitmo Closure Campaign

Camp_x-ray_detainees.jpg
Camp_x-ray_detainees.jpg

Detainees at Guantanamo Bay (Department of Defense photo)

On Tuesday, Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) got a meeting that he had been asking for since March — a briefing with the Department of Justice about plans to resettle 17 Uighurs, Chinese Muslims who have been detained at the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay since 2002. Ever since the Obama administration had floated the idea of moving the detainees into a hospitable Uighur community in Wolf’s northern Virginia district, the congressman had been asking for more details. “I have grave concerns,” he wrote Attorney General Eric Holder in a May 13 letter, “that you are playing fast and loose with the definition of ‘terrorist’ and may be misleading the American people regarding … plans to release the [Uighur] detainees into the U.S.”

Image by: Matt Mahurin
Image by: Matt Mahurin

Image by: Matt Mahurin

In response to this, Wolf’s third official request, the Department of Justice sent Ron Weich, its head of legislative affairs, down to talk with Wolf. When he arrived to speak with the FBI, Wolf, and his staff, it quickly became clear that the congressman still wasn’t going to get the specific details about the Uighurs that he wanted. The session ended early. Asked about Wolf’s request and this meeting, Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd said the department had “provided briefings to Rep. Wolf and other members of Congress, as well their staffs, on the detainee review process” and that it would “continue to do so.”

“If that’s what they call a briefing,” said Daniel Scandling, Wolf’s chief of staff, “someone from their office of legislative affairs, then that’s a pretty sad comment on what their idea of a ‘briefing’ is.”

Wolf and his staff are not alone in their frustration. Five months after the president announced that the Guantanamo Bay prison would be closed, Democrats and human rights activists are grumbling that PR stumbles and a lack of transparency have complicated that long-term goal. They worry that the case of the Uighurs has become hopelessly lost in a fog of controversy over the fate of all of the facility’s detainees. While the president spent some of his May 21 speech bracketing the Uighur situation from other Guantanamo issues, Republicans have succeeded in conflating the fate of these 17 detainees with that of the other 223 prisoners. The fact that the Uighurs’ detentions were found to be illegal in 2008 and they were ordered to be released has been lost as Republicans and opponents of the prison’s closure have stoked fears of terrorists being settled in American towns, receiving welfare, and given time to plot more attacks. The United States has declined to release the Uighurs to their home country for fear that they will face persecution at the hands of the Chinese government.

The slow roll-out of a solution to the Uighur impasse and frayed communications between the administration and Congress created a window in which Republicans were able to inflame these worries. Wolf, whose district also contains the headquarters of the CIA (“these agents are his neighbors,” said Scandling), sent his first letter about the Uighur issue to the Department of Justice on March 13, and his second letter on April 23. Not until May did the issue become “demagogued,” as one Democratic aide in the House put it, by other Republicans.

“Some of these terrorist-trained detainees could be coming to American communities,” said Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.) in a May 5 speech on the Senate floor. Bond pledged to oppose the arrival of Gitmo detainees on American soil “whether these terrorists are coming to the prison in nearby Kansas or a halfway house in a city in Missouri or any other state,” a line he used again in the GOP’s May 9 national radio address.

On May 7, the Uighur issue got an additional working from two Republican bills. The first, the Keep Terrorists out of America Act, was introduced by House Republican leaders to publicize the possibility of Gitmo prisoner releases. The second, the No Welfare for Terrorists Act, was introduced by Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R-Kans.), who is also running for the seat of retiring Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kans.). The bill was written to prohibit any alien national who had been detained at Gitmo from “receiving any federal, state, or local public benefits,” something that would prohibit the resettlement of Uighurs — and something that had not been proposed for any other detainees who do not share the Uighurs’ legal status.

“These are not repentant sinners,” said Tiahrt. “They have not taken a vow of peacefulness. If they were repentant and wanted to educate people in the dangers of terrorism, that would be one thing. But why should taxpayers support the efforts of one of these terrorists to get a foothold in place he’s not happy with? For us to house and feed him, that wouldn’t make sense.” Other Uighurs who have been released outside of China, such as the five who were relocated to Albania in 2007, have not lived up to their fearsome reputations, but that hasn’t helped in the cases of the remaining Gitmo Uighurs.

Tiahrt’s bill hasn’t achieved much momentum in the House, but one of its goals — publicizing the possible resettlement of Gitmo detainees — has succeeded beyond the wildest expectations of Democrats, culminating in 90-6 Senate vote against funding the closure of the prison. Austin Durrer, a spokesman for Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.), characterized Tiahrt’s bill as something “that would undermine the administration,” and “not something the congressman takes seriously.” But Moran, who has ventured out on a limb by defending the possible resettlement of Uighurs, has watched the administration, slowly and agonizingly, fumble the ball.

“One of the congressman’s concerns is that the Department of Justice has not been more hands-on,” said Durrer. “That’s why the president was rebuked in the Senate.”

That rebuke came, in part, because the Uighur situation produced a talking point — terrorists moving next door to Americans — that was easily folded into the Republican playbook. On May 10, former GOP House Speaker Newt Gingrich appeared on Fox News to argue that “the idea we’re going to put alleged terrorists on welfare and have you pay for them and me pay for them so they get to be integrated into American society” was “insane,” because “all these people were brought in on the grounds that they were trained in terrorist camps.” Five days later Gingrich published a column about the Uighurs that repeated the most most threatening rumors about them, and other Republican attacks blurred the lines further. A May 18 paper from the Senate Republican Policy Committee asked whether Americans wanted 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to become their “new neighbor,” despite the paper’s admission that only the Uighurs — who would likely face torture if they were returned to China — were being considered for residence in the United States.

“The entire Gitmo issue is an example of President Obama letting his rhetoric get ahead of his actual policy,” said Republican strategist Alex Conant, a former spokesman for the Republican National Committee. “The administration has not decided what to do with the detainees, including the Uighurs, and they’re telling people what the end result is going to be.”

The administration cannot count on winning over opponents like Tiahrt. “The issue isn’t whether they’re pro-America or anti-America,” he said. “The issue is that they’re radical Muslims.” But the botched handling of the situation has frustrated human rights activists, who have argued for years that the Uighurs present no national security threat, and that their very presence in Gitmo has never made sense. “The U.S. has to resettle a few of the Uighurs in order to close Gitmo, period,” said Stacy Sullivan, a counterterrorism advisor at Human Rights Watch. “The Department of Justice and the Guantanamo Review Task Force need to provide background info on Uighurs to Frank Wolf and to everyone else concerned with Uighurs coming to the United States. As long as don’t do that they fuel suspicion and allegations that President Obama is trying to release terrorists into the United States.”

Frank Wolf is ready for the administration to fix that. “If he sees information that proves that the Uighurs are not actually terrorists, he may take another look at this,” said Scandling. “But we’ve seen nothing that proves that. This is an administration that ran on transparency and all it has provided here is stonewall after stonewall.”

Editors Note: This story has been updated for clarity.

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