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Retired Generals, Admirals Back Obama’s GTMO Closure

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2009/09/Antonio_M._Taguba.jpgRetired Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba (U.S. Army photo)

A group of senior retired generals and admirals who support President Obama’s beleaguered plan to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay said that they were “encouraged” by a meeting yesterday afternoon with Attorney General Eric Holder, and said they heard no reservations from Holder about the administration’s determination to close the facility by its January deadline.

“He was very attentive,” said ret. Army Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba, one of 15 retired flag officers who met with Holder yesterday, and who are scheduled to meet with Deputy Defense Secretary William Lynn Tuesday afternoon and Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair Wednesday morning. “We expressed our views to the attorney general, and he did express the fact that he shared those goals with us,” said Taguba, who became famous in 2004 for investigating detainee abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. “There is a joint deliberative process of reviewing all those [Guantanamo detainee] cases again to ensure that they haven’t missed any of the options that they’re trying to develop toward that plan” to shutter the facility by January, a plan vociferously criticized by congressional Republicans.


Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

The group, assembled by Human Rights First, said during a joint interview Tuesday morning that they heard from Holder that the administration has completed its review of case files for all the 240 detainees at Guantanamo that it inherited from the Bush administration and has reached decisions for charging, transferring or releasing about half of them.

Ret. Army Gen. David M. Maddox rejected the assertion, made by Obama in a May speech, that some detainees at Guantanamo could be neither responsibly charged nor released, and must be held instead in a form of indefinite detention. “Our goal is the number that remain in that category at the end should be zero,” said Maddox, a former commander of Army forces in Europe. He said he was “impressed” to hear that Holder “shared that goal.” In his May speech, Obama pledged to “exhaust every avenue that we have to prosecute those at Guantanamo who pose a danger to our country” before considering preventive detention; reportedly, the Obama administration has decided against seeking a new law granting it additional preventive detention powers.

Tracy Schmaler, a spokeswoman for the Department of Justice, said that Holder “listened to their perspective and he discussed the administration’s work to close Guantanamo and strengthen national security.”

A report in the Washington Post and ProPublica last week placed blame on White House Counsel Greg Craig for what it described as a disorganized process of reviewing individual detainee case files that had been “left in disarray” by the Bush administration. But the retired admirals and generals defended both the reviews and the deadline set for closing Guantanamo by January ahead of a plan for final dispensation.

“The counterargument that says ‘they never should have set the goal’ — anyone who said that has never been in a large bureaucracy,” Maddox said. “If there’s no deadline set, if it’s ‘Oh my God, I gotta review, at that time, 240 files, they’re not all in the same place, I’m gonna close this place — OK, we’ll do that, but do we have to do that during this first administration?’ You just wouldn’t get this done.”

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee and a proponent of closing Guantanamo, criticized the administration Sunday on ABC News’ “ThisWeek” for setting a deadline for closing the facility ahead of determining where to send the residual detainees for trial and incarceration. “The policy should have been formulated and then implemented, and then you would have had a timeframe that you wouldn’t have to say, ‘Hey, we can’t keep one of our first commitments,’” McCain said.

But ret. Lt. Gen. Harry Soyster, a former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, said it was “not mutually exclusive” to conduct a thorough case review and close the facility by January. “The goal is set and you drive toward that goal,” he said. Added Brig. Gen. Murray G. Sagsveen, a former senior judge advocate for the Army National Guard, “It was my impression that they’re trying to meet that goal and do it as thoroughly and individually as absolutely possible.”

But the group agreed that closing the facility was more important than hitting the January deadline. “The big issue is, do you know what you’re going to do with everybody? Do you have a plan in place, do you know how you’re going to go do it?” said Maddox. “Whether or not it happens exactly one year after the directive was set or not, if all the pieces are in place to get it completed, I’m not overly hung up if they miss it a little bit, but I wouldn’t remove the darn date.”

In May, a GOP-driven backlash to closing the facility, compounded by the Obama administration’s inability to articulate a clear plan to its congressional allies, led to the Senate voting 90-6 to remove $80 million requested by the administration to close Guantanamo from a supplemental defense bill. Republicans have pushed a claim, without evidence, that the Obama administration plans to release dangerous detainees into American communities, rather than try and convict them of crimes. And GOP senators from Kansas took the unusual step of placing a hold on the nomination of John McHugh, a former Republican congressman from New York, to become Army Secretary in protest of the plan, but backed down two weeks ago.

The retired generals and admirals denounced the moves as fear-mongering. “They lose sight of the strength of our federal court system, some don’t seem to trust the court system to try them or trust the prison system to hold them, they don’t trust the values we have,” said ret. Rear Adm. Don Guter, who served as the Navy’s judge advocate general from 2000 to 2002. Added ret. Army Brig. Gen. James P. Cullen, a former judge advocate general for the Army Reserve, “If [critics] want to focus on fear, they should really look at what Guantanamo serves as a recruiting tool for our enemy. There’s a basis for fear while the place stays open. It’s not the fear of what will happen when we put these guys away some place in a Supermax.”

Guter said he hoped it would help the administration to know that “they’re not hanging out there by themselves. They’ve got a group of people [who] agree with the policies, and we’re going to be behind them.” Human Rights First has scheduled a briefing for congressional staff Tuesday afternoon with members of the group to urge the closing of Guantanamo. Amy Sobel, Human Rights First’s chief of staff, said that the group plans to barnstorm around the country in support of the goal, although dates for appearing in specific states have yet to be scheduled.

“The military perspective is really America the Brave,” said ret. Army Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton, a former commander of the U.S.’s training effort for the Iraqi security forces. “It’s not America the fearful or America the craven.”

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