- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Fed up with President Obama’s renewed push to close Guantanamo Bay prison, top Republican senators on Tuesday announced legislation to clamp down on his ability to empty the facility, saying he should no longer be allowed to send detainees to Yemen, home of al Qaeda’s deadliest franchise, or to release any of the most serious terrorist suspects still being held.

The bill would effectively end Mr. Obama’s goal of closing the prison by the time he leaves office by banning him from transferring detainees who are at a high or medium risk of returning to the battlefield. Of the 127 prisoners remaining, the “overwhelming majority” fall into those categories, said Sen. Kelly Ayotte, New Hampshire Republican.

“It’s one thing to make a campaign promise, but if you look at the security situation that we’re facing around the world right now, now is not the time to be emptying Guantanamo with no plan for how and where these individuals are going to go,” Ms. Ayotte said Tuesday as she and fellow Republicans, including Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the new chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, announced the bill.

About one in three detainees released under President Bush and President Obama have re-engaged in battle against the U.S. or allies, meaning American troops may be injured or killed trying to recapture someone already held in U.S. custody, the Republican senators said Tuesday. Having those terrorists back in battle also puts American civilian lives at risk.

“You let them out of jail, they’re going to be on the ground planning another 9/11,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican.

Al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen said it directed last week’s deadly terrorist attacks in Paris against satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo to avenge the honor of the Prophet Muhammad, a frequent target of the weekly, and a Jewish market.

Naureen Shah, director of the USA security and human rights program at Amnesty International, called the bill a “disgraceful” attempt to play “political football” with the men who remain in the prison in Cuba.

“This is a shameful attempt to derail closure of Guantanamo,” she said in a statement. “As the Guantanamo prison enters its fourteenth year in existence, it’s clear that some in Congress want to make this gruesome stain on the U.S. government’s human rights record a permanent one.”

Mr. Obama in the past has vowed to veto legislation that interfered with what he believes to be his constitutional war powers when it comes to overseeing war detainees.

A National Security Council spokesman said keeping the detention center open at Guantanamo Bay weakens national security and costs taxpayers too much.

Congress should remove unwarranted and burdensome restrictions that curtail the executive branch’s options for managing the detainee population. The president has consistently opposed these restrictions,” the spokesman said. “Congress should work with us to remove these restrictions, not pass new ones.”

The legislation was introduced just weeks after Mr. Obama released five detainees to Kazakhstan. In December, 15 detainees left the prison, more than in the rest of 2014 combined.

In May, the president released five detainees with ties to the Taliban to Qatar in exchange for the safe return of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who disappeared while serving in Afghanistan. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle criticized the transfer because Congress was not notified in time of the transfer and because it was largely seen as setting precedent that the U.S. would negotiate with enemies for prisoners of war.

Since then, the administration has released 27 detainees, some of whom received military training or planned attacks with al Qaeda.

Mr. Obama initially promised to close the prison within a year of taking office and bring many of them to the U.S. for trials. But Congress has repeatedly stymied him, banning transfers and blocking the building of a prison to hold them on U.S. soil.

Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Sunday that the prison should be closed, but he acknowledged there are dozens of detainees who can never be released.

“I’ve been in the group that believes its in our national interest in close Guantanamo,” Gen. Dempsey said on “Fox News Sunday.” “It does create a psychological scar on our national values. Whether it should or not, it does.”

Asked what he would do with prisoners who can never be released if the prison is closed, given that Congress prohibits them from coming to the U.S., he said that is a question for Congress to answer.

“Isn’t that a fair question for our elected leaders?” he said. “There’s going to be dozens of these individuals that have to be detained. Our elected individuals need to find a way to detain them.”

Mr. McCain said he hopes to bring up the bill quickly in his committee and that there is support among House Republicans to move the legislation through the chamber as well.

For low-risk prisoners who could be transferred, the bill would establish a higher standard for transfers to other countries, extend a ban on transfers to the U.S. for any reason and prohibit all transfers to Yemen, which Ms. Ayotte called the “Wild Wild West for terrorists right now.”

Mr. McCain noted that at least one of the terrorists involved in the Paris shooting received training in Yemen.

The senators said Mr. Obama, while wanting to close Guantanamo, has never offered a concrete plan for how to do it. Mr. McCain said that if the president introduces a workable plan, his legislation could easily be repealed.

Mr. McCain wasn’t critical of just the president. When asked about Gen. Dempsey’s comments, Mr. McCain said that was one of several statements from the Joint Chiefs chairman that are “not only wrong, but ridiculous.”

“I don’t believe, certainly not with this individual, that Gen. Dempsey’s opinion carries any weight whatsoever, because he obviously blatantly ignores, and it’s sad to say, the fact that so many of these individuals that have been released are now putting the men and women under his command’s lives in danger,” Mr. McCain said.

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