5 senators at Guantanamo hearing easily outnumbered by protesters

Ben Kamisar

More than four years after President Barack Obama ordered the closure of the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, members of Congress are still sparring over the future of the facility.

The latest round came Wednesday in a Senate hearing room, where just five senators listened to service members and think tank leaders in a new attempt to take the issue off the back burner as hunger strikes and force-feedings continue at the prison.

"The reality is that every day that it remains open, the Guantanamo prison weakens our alliances, inspires our enemies and calls into question our commitment to human rights," said Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., the chair of the Senate Judiciary subcommittee that heard the testimony.

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, contradicted Durbin’s sentiments, citing terrorist attacks in Boston, Benghazi, Libya, and Fort Hood, Texas, as proof that the U.S. is still a target.

"Until we are presented with a good, viable strategy for what to do with terrorists who would work night and day to murder innocent Americans, I have a hard time seeing how it is responsible to shut down our detention facilities and send these individuals home where they . . . almost surely would return to threaten and kill more Americans," he said.

The detention center, which was opened in January 2002, currently holds 166 prisoners, 86 of whom have been cleared for release. Another 46 have been designated to be held indefinitely but won’t face criminal charges.

Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton, who led efforts to train Iraqi security forces after the toppling of Saddam Hussein, told the gathering that the prison is a black mark on America’s reputation abroad, as well as the U.S. Constitution.

"Guantanamo cannot be buffed enough to shine again after the sins of the past," he said. "Improvements in detainee treatment and in military commission rules will not change the belief in the eyes of our allies and our enemies that Guantanamo is a significant problem to the prosecution of the U.S. national security agenda."

But holding terrorists in prisons in the United States remains anathema to some, even though many convicted terrorists are incarcerated in federal penitentiaries

"I believe we owe it to the American people to avoid bringing terrorists into the country," said Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., who was invited to testify. "We did not take the fight to the terrorists to bring the terrorists back to the United States."

Polling has found that Americans support keeping the facility open. An ABC News-Washington Post poll last year found that 70 percent of Americans, including 79 percent of Republicans and 61 percent of Democrats, held that opinion.

The months-long hunger strike at the detention center provided a backdrop for the hearing. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who’d asked the administration to halt force-feeding of hunger strikers at Guantanamo, was among the handful of senators who attended. Also there were Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., and Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.

Dozens of protesters came. Some had donned orange jumpsuits in solidarity with the detainees, while others shouted during remarks or sang as the hearing ended. Elliott Adams, a former paratrooper in the Vietnam War, said he’d fasted since May 17 to protest the force-feedings, taking in just 300 calories a day.

"I had to do something. I couldn’t sit there," he said. "Who am I if I can allow that to happen in my name and not do something? So I decided to fast."

By Ben Kamisar
McClatchy Washington Bureau