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Playing Defense on Guantánamo

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) also confronted the White House on Tuesday, saying on the Senate floor that Obama should insist in December talks with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki that detainees in Iraq suspected of killing Americans be transferred to Guantánamo. And he again called on the White House to give up its goal of closing the facility. “The logical place to put long-term or indefinite detention of foreign fighters ... is not on a ship at sea or in our private prison system but, rather, as I’ve said many times before, at the secure detention facility at Guantánamo.”

McConnell said Obama tied his own hands by signing an executive order in his first days in office to close the prison without a plan for how to carry that out.

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) argued on the floor that terrorists have been successfully tried in U.S. courts before.

“More than 300 terrorists have been successfully prosecuted in our courts,” Durbin said. “The same courts that Sen. McConnell questions whether they could adequately protect America. ... How many have been prosecuted in military tribunals in that same period of time? Three.”

But a senior Senate Democratic aide Tuesday conceded Graham’s point.

“They’re not going to be able to close Guantánamo before the election,” the aide said, noting the problematic politics of transferring detainees to the United States. “They’re trying to thread a needle that’s very difficult to do given this political environment.”

The detainee issue could soon be the subject of votes on the Senate floor, with the outcome far from certain. Democrats defeated a provision last month that would have made military commissions the default for al-Qaida suspects, but a similar proposal approved by the Armed Services Committee as part of the defense authorization bill will be harder to defeat. 

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the panel’s ranking member, said Tuesday he is still negotiating with Democrats on the issue.

The White House and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) object to the detainee provision, although it includes a waiver allowing civilian court prosecutions. But given that only one Democrat — Sen. Mark Udall (Colo.) — opposed the provision in committee, the GOP may hold the upper hand.

Still, 13 Senate Democrats sent a letter to Reid on Oct. 21 expressing “grave concerns” about the provision, arguing that mandating military detention unless a waiver is granted could harm intelligence gathering by cutting off civilian interrogations in midstream and potentially making it harder to prosecute some terrorists.

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