The Obama administration said Thursday that the Islamic State’s execution of captives in orange jumpsuits is evidence that Guantanamo Bay is being used as a recruitment tool by terrorists and must be shut down, even if it means releasing dangerous terrorists back into the Middle East.
Brian McKeon, principal deputy undersecretary of defense for policy, said the administration doesn’t believe it’s a coincidence that a Jordanian pilot and a Japanese hostage were wearing orange jumpsuits, which he said are symbols of the detention facility, in two recent execution videos released by the Islamic State.
“The greatest action the United States can take to fight terrorism is to close Gitmo,” Mr. McKeon told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
It’s the latest argument advanced by President Obama’s lieutenants, who are eager to find a way to make good on his overdue campaign promise to shutter the prison.
Senators, who have been among the many hurdles to closing the prison, were skeptical of Mr. McKeon’s argument.
“If we’re going to decide to close the facility … based upon that, we better know that it’s real and not just a perceived threat,” said Sen. Angus S. King Jr., Maine independent.
Sen. Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican and former Army officer who served tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, said terrorists were able to recruit well before the Guantanamo facility opened in 2002 and “don’t attack us for what we do; they attack us for who we are.”
“In my opinion, the only problem with Guantanamo Bay is there are too many empty beds and cells there right now,” Mr. Cotton said. “As far as I’m concerned, every one of them can rot in hell, but as long as they don’t do that, they can rot in Guantanamo Bay.”
Republicans, intent on erecting more hurdles to thwart Mr. Obama and keep the prison open for detaining and interrogating suspected terrorists, have introduced legislation with more restrictions that could effectively end all transfers for the remaining two years of Mr. Obama’s presidency.
Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican and chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said he will push the bill through his committee next week, but Mr. McKeon said the White House will oppose it.
The prison has been controversial since its opening under the George W. Bush administration, which said the facility was necessary to keep dangerous people from returning to the battlefield in the war on terrorism.
Human rights advocates have argued that the detainees are treated harshly and should not be held indefinitely.
Nicholas Rasmussen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, said given the recruitment value to the Islamic State, it would be worth shuttering the prison even if some detainees return to the battlefield.
“The benefits to national security of closing Guantanamo in many ways outweigh the risk posed by releasing prisoners,” he said.
Guantanamo Bay also is mentioned in Inspire, the publication of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, said Lt. Col. Myles Caggins III, Defense Department spokesman for detainee policy. He said keeping the detention center open hurts national security by draining resources, damaging relationships and emboldening extremists.
Sen. Tim Kaine, Virginia Democrat, said those who don’t believe the prison helps recruit radical terrorists to attack the U.S. are ignoring reality.
“To say that the concern about the propaganda value of Guantanamo is just a political argument that the president has cooked up ignores an awful lot of facts and an awful lot of opinions by very talented national security individuals,” he said.
Mr. Rasmussen said the number of released detainees confirmed to have returned to battle against the U.S. was 19 percent under Mr. Bush but has dropped to 6.8 percent under Mr. Obama.
Congress imposed more restrictions in 2009 after Mr. Obama took office, though the president has picked up the pace of transfers, including last year’s exchange of five Taliban commanders for Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.
Sen. Daniel Sullivan, Alaska Republican, said Mr. Obama didn’t even give Congress the required 30-day notice before that transfer.
“There’s a lack of trust here,” Mr. Sullivan said. “It would be very important to get a definite explanation from this administration on why they violated that statute.”
The Bergdahl exchange soured relations to the point that Mr. Cotton said he questions whether Mr. Obama might try to transfer detainees to the U.S. in violation of the law.
“What assurance can we receive that there will not be a detainee of Guantanamo Bay on our shores tomorrow morning?” Mr. Cotton asked.
CNN reported last week that one of the detainees released in the swap returned to the battle, but a Pentagon spokesman said all five detainees remain in Qatar and pose no threat.
About 10 Code Pink protesters clad in orange attended the hearing, a week after clashing with Mr. McCain at another hearing.
About an hour into the hearing, one protester stood and shouted, “This country is disgusting! … What’s wrong with you, America?” Capitol Police removed the protester and another one later who shouted that detainees should have the same rights as prisoners of war.