- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 17, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

The people representing the town of Standish, Mich., recently learned that they will not be allowed to see the Guantanamo Bay detention facility firsthand and gather information on what is involved in handling the prisoners who may soon be their newest residents. Why is Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates denying them the opportunity to visit Gitmo and see the dangers presented by more than 200 of the most hard-core jihadists in the world?

As President Obama scrambles to meet a self-imposed deadline of January 2010 for closing down Gitmo, he has his eye on a maximum security prison in Standish as a possible destination for transferring detainees. Some local leaders representing Standish support such a measure — the community’s economy has been hit hard these past few months, and Michigan’s own budget woes are forcing the state to consider shutting down its “Standish Max” prison, a major employer in town. Sending Gitmo detainees to Standish Max, they argue, will save the prison and the jobs that go with it.

Not everyone in Standish, or the state ofMichigan, agrees. Hundreds of local residents attended a town-hall meeting last month and heard from a panel of security and economic experts that the Gitmo transfer would threaten the safety of local residents and actually result in a net loss for the local and state economy. These concerns were underscored by the Michigan Senate, which voted unanimously in favor of a resolution that urges Mr. Obama to “declassify intelligence information regarding Guantanamo Bay detention camp detainees” and share it with the Michigan Legislature and Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm, a Democrat.

One particularly outspoken opponent of detainee transfer to Standish has been Rep. Peter Hoekstra, Michigan Republican, the ranking member on the Intelligence Committee in the U.S. House of Representatives. Last month, Mr. Hoekstra requested that Mr. Gates allow him to lead a delegation of state and local officials from Michigan, and members of the Michigan press, to visit Guantanamo and receive information on the detainees and threats they may pose.

Mr. Gates turned Mr. Hoekstra down flat.

In his response, he wrote: “As a member of Congress, you are always welcome to visit Guantanamo, as you have in the past, to tour the facilities and receive a briefing. … However, at this stage it may be premature to have local officials visit until a final decision is made.” He went on: “When we have a clear idea of where the detainees will be relocated, we will be sure to engage state and local officials and their representatives in Congress.”

Of course, offering to “engage” state and local officials of an area slated for detainee transfer after the “final decision” has been made is hardly an offer to do anything.

Equally unsettling is the idea that these state and local officials are prohibited from visiting the Cuban facility even when many others — including some individuals with very troubling records — have gone before them.

Foreign delegations from numerous countries have visited Guantanamo, as have families of Sept. 11 victims. Other visitors have included scholars from prominent American academic institutions, think tanks and publications from across the philosophical spectrum; the then-president-elect of the American Bar Association; grass roots troop support organizations such as Move America Forward and We Do Care, scores of journalists, oh, and Miss Universe, 2008.

One of the more notorious visitors is Salam Al-Marayati, the executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC). As Steve Emerson’s Investigative Project on Terrorism reports, MPAC as an organization has previously issued policy papers calling for the removal of terrorism designations for Hezbollah and Hamas.

Mr. Al-Marayati himself previously referred to Hezbollah attacks as “legitimate resistance,” called on Muslim-Americans not to cooperate with the FBI, and spoke at a fundraising dinner for Palestinian Islamic Jihad member Sami Al-Arian.

Considering the list of previous visitors to Guantanamo, the question must be raised as to why state and local officials from Standish, Mich., are being denied access. They have a more compelling interest in visiting the facility so as to make fully informed decisions on whether they should accept detainees in their state.

One can’t help but wonder whether the answer lies in the very real possibility that members of such a delegation, after seeing for themselves what they and their constituents would be up against, might actually decide they prefer not to have some of the world’s most dangerous terrorists in their backyard after all.

That, of course, could be very embarrassing to a president who has promised his base and a slew of foreign leaders that he would shutter what he referred to as the “misguided experiment” that is Guantanamo Bay .

Communities up for consideration as the new home for these prisoners should have the opportunity to get to know their potential neighbors, even if such knowledge is inconvenient for this president.

Ben Lerner is director of policy operations for the Center for Security Policy.

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