11.17.09

Senate Defeats Amendment To Obstruct Government’s Ability To Securely Hold Detainees

[WASHINGTON – Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy Tuesday joined 56 other Senators to defeat an amendment to the Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Appropriations Act  that would have prohibited the use of funds to construct or modify prison facilities to hold individuals currently being detained at the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.  Leahy has opposed similar measures designed to curb the tools and resources available to the Federal Government to bring charges against detainees held at Guantanamo Bay.  The amendment was opposed by the Attorney General, the Secretary of Defense, and the Secretary of Homeland Security.]

Statement Of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.),
Chairman, Senate Judiciary Committee,
On Inhofe Amendment Related To Detainees At Guantanamo Bay, Cuba
November 17, 2009

The amendment sponsored by Senator Inhofe is one of a series of amendments that have recently been offered in the Senate that would put political interests ahead of our national interests.  This amendment would prohibit any funds from being used to construct or modify any facility in the United States to hold any individual who is currently being held at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility.   

This goal of this amendment is to ensure that the detainees being held at Guantanamo Bay, some for years without charge, cannot be tried in our Federal courts and that the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay cannot close. This is harmful to our national security and devastating to our reputation as a model justice system throughout the world.   As a former prosecutor, I find it deeply troubling that the Senate would be asked to prohibit the administration from trying even dangerous terrorists in our Federal courts.  As a Senator, I find it shameful that Congress is being asked to help keep open a facility that has been a stain on our reputation throughout the world and has given ammunition to our enemies.  General Colin Powell was correct when he said, “Guantanamo has become a major problem for America's perception as it's seen; the way the world perceives America.”

President Obama addressed that problem in the first days of his Presidency by announcing that he would close Guantanamo Bay, and he has affirmed that commitment by announcing that the administration will have a preference for trying detainees in our proven Federal courts.  Just last week, the Attorney General announced that, in consultation with the Secretary of Defense, the U.S. Government will begin to move toward federal criminal trials against five of these detainees, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.  I have supported President Obama and the Attorney General in these steps, and I will continue to do so.  That is why I have voted against amendments that would withhold funding to close the Guantanamo detention facility and prohibit any Guantanamo detainees from being brought to the United States.  These amendments undermine the good work the President is doing, and they make us less safe, not safer.

Two weeks ago, the Senate defeated another amendment that would have restricted the authority and the options of our military and law enforcement.  Secretary Gates and Attorney General Holder sent us a joint letter opposing that amendment.  They reminded us that we should not prohibit the Government from being able to “use every lawful instrument of national power… to ensure that terrorists are brought to justice and can no longer threaten American lives.” That is exactly what this amendment would do by tying the administration’s hands in the event that they need to upgrade any facility in order to securely house these detainees.  I ask that a copy of the administration’s letter be inserted into the Record.

Again, this week, joined by Secretary Napolitano, Attorney General Holder and Secretary Gates wrote to the Senate in opposition, this time to the Inhofe amendment we consider today.  I ask unanimous consent that the administration’s letter be inserted into the Record.

Instead of closing Guantanamo and moving toward a lawful and effective national security policy, this amendment would say to the world that we refuse to face what we did at Guantanamo and instead would continue the legacy of a place that was created in an effort to lock people up for years without charge and not face the consequences. This amendment would say to the world that we are not strong enough, that our over 200 year old superior legal tradition is not flexible enough, to allow us to deal with those who attack us.  Refusing to close Guantanamo also means we lose our ability to respond with moral authority if other countries should mistreat American soldiers or civilians.

Much debate has focused on keeping Guantanamo detainees out of the United States.  In this debate, political rhetoric has entirely drowned out reason and reality.  Our criminal justice system handles extremely dangerous criminals, and more than a few terrorists, and it does so safely and effectively.  We try very dangerous people in our courts and hold very dangerous people in our jails throughout the country.  I know; I put some of them there.  We do it every day in ways that keep the American people safe and secure, and I have absolute confidence that we can do it for even the most dangerous terrorism suspects.

The facts speak for themselves.  The Judiciary Committee has held several hearings on the issue of how to best handle detainees, and experts and judges from across the political spectrum have agreed that our courts and our criminal justice system can handle this challenge and indeed has handled it many times already.   Since January of this year alone over 30 terrorism cases have been either successfully tried or sentenced using our Federal courts. No one has ever escaped from a Supermax facility.  In fact terrorists are routinely and securely held at our prisons, including Zacharias Moussaoi, one of the plotters behind the September 11 attacks and Ramzi Yousef, the World Trade Center bomber.

Why would the Senate pass an amendment that suggests that our country and the brave men and women who staff these prisons cannot handle these prisoners, or that they are not up to the task? And why would we pass an amendment that simultaneously makes it harder for the Government to securely detain terrorism suspects in our prisons by making any necessary adjustments to hold them?  This amendment would ironically make us less safe by making our prisons less secure.  This is playing games with national security.

It is not only President Obama who believes that closing Guantanamo will make us a more secure and honorable nation.  I agree with the conviction expressed by Senator Graham and Senator McCain who said, “[w]e support President Obama’s decision to close the prison at Guantanamo, reaffirm America’s adherence to the Geneva Conventions, and begin a process that will, we hope, lead to the resolution of all cases of Guantanamo detainees.”   

It is time to act on our principles and our constitutional system.  It is time to close Guantanamo and try and convict those who seek to do us harm. Where the administration decides to try them in Federal courts, our courts and our prisons are more than up to the task.

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