published Tuesday, May 7th, 2013

Barack Obama, GOP at odds over Guantanamo Bay prison


by Chris Carroll
U.S. military guards walk within Camp Delta military-run prison at the Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base, Cuba.
U.S. military guards walk within Camp Delta military-run prison at the Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base, Cuba.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.
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WASHINGTON — Local Republicans in Congress condemned President Barack Obama's renewed commitment to close the Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba, freshening their own arguments against transferring detainees and putting Americans in harm's way.

"All of the prisoners housed at Guantanamo are terrorists," said U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala. "They pose an obvious threat to our national security, and they should not be allowed to set foot on our soil."

Last week at a hastily called news conference, Obama vowed in surprisingly striking terms to reset his focus on a first-term promise from 2009: Defy conservatives in Congress, shutter Guantanamo and transfer up to 166 prisoners to other countries or a Supermax-style prison in Illinois.

"I think it is critical for us to understand that Guantanamo is not necessary to keep America safe," Obama said, calling the prison inefficient and expensive. "It hurts us in terms of our international standing."

The president's call to action came in the midst of a hunger strike in which 21 indefinitely held detainees are being force-fed through their noses. His remarks also surfaced as military officials sought an extra $200 million to repair and replace deteriorating facilities at the prison, according to The New York Times.

But through statements and votes, most Senate Republicans from Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia have joined the majority of their colleagues in obstructing the president. By and large, they cite safety concerns that are likely to imperil Obama's renewed efforts on Guantanamo, whatever they may be.

"The American people expect us to keep them safe," Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said in a statement over the weekend. "I have yet to hear one good reason why moving these terrorists from off our shores right into the heart of our country makes us safer."

Only U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, a Tennessean and the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, kept the door open to Obama's idea in a carefully worded statement.

"While the administration has yet to submit a plan for closing Guantanamo to Congress, if an acceptable alternative is presented that allows us to lawfully detain and question terrorist combatants without undermining U.S. security or putting our criminal justice system at risk, I would be open to looking at that," the former Chattanooga mayor said.

That flexibility is new. On at least two occasions, Alexander, Corker and Republican senators from Alabama and Georgia have hindered efforts to close Guantanamo.

In 2009, they voted to cut from a war spending bill $80 million requested by Obama to close the detention center and to bar the transfer of detainees to the United States and its territories. As a whole, the Senate voted the Southerners' way 90-6.

More recently, in November of last year, the tri-state sextet voted to bar the transfer of Guantanamo Bay detainees to the United States. The Senate voted 54-41 to prohibit such transfers for another year.

Some House Republicans are just as adamantly opposed as their Senate colleagues. In a recent newsletter to constituents, U.S. Rep. Jimmy Duncan, a Knoxville Republican, said Guantanamo detainees "are not U.S. citizens and should not be given the same rights and privileges as if they were."

"I do not support any plan for these prisoners that puts them on U.S. soil," Duncan wrote.

Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn drew parallels to current events.

"The president needs to realize that the Global War on Terrorism did not end with the killing of Osama bin Laden," the Brentwood Republican said in a statement. "The Boston bombing is a sharp reminder that there is still a clear and present threat to our American way of life from those that mean us harm."

Political concerns have discouraged even Obama's allies from endorsing his plans to do away with Guantanamo, which houses a few 9/11 plotters. Tennessee's pair of congressional Democrats, U.S. Reps. Jim Cooper, of Nashville, and Steve Cohen, of Memphis, did not respond to requests for comment on Obama's proposals.

Experts say Republican opposition likely will prevent Obama from getting Congress to accede to his Guantanamo proposals. But at Thursday's news conference, the president said he would also do "everything we can do administratively" to shut down the prison.

"This is a lingering problem that is not going to get better," he said. "It's going to get worse. It's going to fester."

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