Saturday, May 7, 2011

Debate Rekindled on Guantanamo

Saturday, May 7, 2011

WASHINGTON—Osama bin Laden will never do time in a Guantánamo jail cell, but the al Qaeda leader's death is sparking renewed debate over the role of the offshore facility as the U.S. prepares to draw down from the Afghanistan war whose prisoners it was built to house.

President Barack Obama entered office pledging to close the prison, but quickly lost the political debate to congressional Republicans, who won bipartisan support in stymieing administration efforts to transfer some detainees to a facility within the U.S. or to third countries.

Republicans were poised to seal that victory with legislation all but ensuring the offshore prison would remain in operation for years to come. Now, both sides are finding ammunition in bin Laden's demise.

"The operation against Osama bin Laden proves that intelligence derived from detention facilities contributes to the larger war effort," said House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard "Buck" McKeon (R., Calif.), who plans to release revised detainee legislation later this week, ahead of a key hearing next week. The president should "change course by publicly stating that now is not the time to close the facility," Mr. McKeon said.

Democrats drew the opposite lesson. "The president's credentials on the antiterrorism front are impeccable, and that was demonstrated in the operation this Sunday," said Rep. Adam Schiff (D., Calif.), a member of the House intelligence committee. "There's going to be very little appetite for making Guantanamo a permanent shrine to the war on terror."

As introduced in March, Mr. McKeon's Detainee Security Act would block the transfer of terrorism suspects now at Guantanamo or captured in the future to the U.S. for detention or trial, while making their release to third countries nearly impossible. It would nullify Mr. Obama's executive order requiring periodic review of indefinite detentions, specifying a range of additional criteria before military officials could consider recommending any prisoner for release. And it would expand the category of prisoners who could be taken to Guantanamo-including persons arrested in the U.S.

On Wednesday, Mr. McKeon met with his committee's ranking Democrat, Rep. Adam Smith of Washington state, to see if there was room for compromise.

Mr. Smith couldn't be reached for comment, but in March he strongly criticized Republican proposals, saying they proposals allowed detention of both foreign and U.S. citizens "with too little oversight for ensuring that decisions are made fairly, constitutionally and justly."

Democrats argue that the executive branch should be able to decide whether suspected terrorists are tried in federal court—as the vast majority have been under both the Bush and Obama administrations—or by the military.

Republicans, however, are concerned that with bin Laden gone, the military commission system they labored for years to establish could be mothballed after trying Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and the other surviving alleged members of bin Laden's conspiracy. A congressional Republican aide said their legislation was intended to ensure military commissions became a permanent part of the landscape by guaranteeing a stream of future cases.

So far, neither Republicans nor Democrats are proposing relaxing the limits on interrogation techniques that were imposed after disclosures of brutal prisoner treatment during the Bush administration.

Some former Bush and Central Intelligence Agency officials said Sunday's bin Laden operation was made possible by clues extracted more than five years ago through waterboarding and other techniques some call torture.

Other officials, including Senate intelligence committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D., Calif.), disputed those claims.

The Bush and Obama administrations repudiated once-secret legal memorandums asserting such acts were lawful, and Congress reiterated that interrogations must comply with American treaty obligations.

House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Peter King (R., N.Y.) said brutal methods had produced results, but there was little chance they would again be American policy.

"The limits should be relaxed but, unfortunately, I believe it's a closed chapter," he said through a spokesman.

Write to Jess Bravin at

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