- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 24, 2009

A top House Democratic leader says Americans no longer fear bringing terrorist suspects from Guantanamo Bay detention center to the United States, a shift in public opinion that he says will fuel the defeat of Republican measures to block the transfers.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen, special assistant to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, said he knows Democrats likely will have to go on the record with votes supporting the Obama administration’s decision to send five accused Sept. 11 terror plotters being held at the Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to federal court in New York City.

The Maryland Democrat said it is a stance bolstered by Americans’ faith in the U.S. justice system as opposed to what he called “fear mongering” on the other side of the aisle.

Republicans are expected to force a vote on terror-suspect transfers as part of the fiscal 2010 spending bill for the Departments of Commerce and Justice, which Democratic leaders put on hold last week, and on the fiscal 2010 Intelligence Authorization Act, which is ready for a floor vote but has languished for months.

“The American people don’t run scared,” said Mr. Van Hollen, who also serves as chairman of the House Democrats’ campaign arm, adding that caucus members have not come to him with concerns about how a vote on detainee transfers would play in their home districts.

“This was an argument that was driven largely by people who were trying to politicize this issue and engage in fear-mongering,” Mr. Van Hollen said. “What’s happened is a lot of members have gone back to their constituents and found out that the fear-mongering did not succeed in scaring their constituents. … Their constituents want to see these people brought to justice, and they have confidence in our system.”

He said he wondered what Republicans “are afraid of.”

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, acknowledged he had worries about votes on Guantanamo Bay detainees but said he was convinced that ultimately a bipartisan majority would support “bringing of these very bad criminals to justice in a way consistent with the values of this country.”

Critics say moving terror suspects to the United States poses security risks and civilian trials threaten to expose intelligence-gathering techniques and shower publicity upon accused terrorists, including confessed Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who is among the five slated for a New York trial.

Some of those fears were confirmed Monday by a New York Times report that the lawyer for the five accused plotters said they planned to plead not guilty “so they can have a trial and try to get their message out.”

“Obviously, [Mr. Van Hollen] has chosen to ignore the uproar about having the trials in New York City,” said Rep. Peter Hoekstra of Michigan, the ranking Republican on the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.

Mr. Van Hollen pointed to a Senate vote last week that struck down a Republican measure to withhold funding for transferring detainees from the Guantanamo Bay facility. The measure was tabled in a 57-43 vote in which several Democrats switched their votes after previously opposing bringing terror suspects to the United States.

Still, vulnerable House Democrats in conservative districts have been hesitant to tackle the issue head-on. About a dozen vulnerable House Democrats contacted about Mr. Van Hollen’s comments declined to respond.

Polls show a majority of voters are far from sold on the idea of moving terror suspects to the United States or on trying them in civilian courts.

A CBS News poll last week showed 54 percent of Americans want terror suspects tried in closed military courts, compared to 40 percent who said they think the suspects should have their cases heard in civilian court. It also showed that Americans increasingly oppose President Obama’s plan to close Guantanamo Bay, with 50 percent against the plan and just 39 percent in support.

Mr. Hoekstra called on Democratic leaders and the Obama administration to back up their rhetoric by making public the dossiers on each of the approximately 200 detainees at Guantanamo Bay, information that has been related to Intelligence Committee members and congressional leaders but remains classified and barred from dissemination.

“Why are they so reluctant to release the information?” he asked rhetorically. “They know if they release it, the American people will say, ‘You’re crazy. We don’t want them here.’”

Mr. Hoekstra is trying to force a vote on his bill, titled the Keep Terrorists Out of America Act, which would prohibit transferring or releasing Guantanamo detainees to any state without express approval from the state’s governor and legislature.

He launched a discharge petition that, if it gathers signatures from a majority of House members, would compel Democratic leaders to bring the bill to a floor vote. A discharge petition has not succeeded since 2001, and Mr. Hoekstra acknowledged the long odds for his effort.

House Republicans have had mixed results with legislation opposing detainee transfers to the United States. With support from 88 Democrats, an amendment blocking the transfers was added to the Homeland Security spending bill for fiscal 2010.

But the conference committee dropped the language in combining the House and Senate versions, and the final bill passed after enough Democrats switched their votes to defeat a bid to restore the ban on bringing the terror suspects to U.S. prisons.

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