11.14.13

Statement Of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Chairman, Senate Judiciary Committee, On Closing Guantanamo

More than 12 years after the terrorist attacks of September 11, as our military presence in Afghanistan winds down, it is time to take a hard look at our counterterrorism policy.  We need to consider which of our policies are working and which, while perhaps well-intentioned when they were adopted in the highly charged weeks and months after 9/11, are not making us safer. 

There is ample evidence that the status quo is unsustainable. 

As recent revelations have made clear, we need a careful review of our surveillance activities.  This summer, many Americans learned for the first time that Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act has for years been secretly interpreted to authorize the collection of Americans’ phone records on an unprecedented scale. 

Despite the massive privacy intrusion of this program, the executive branch has not made the case that this program is uniquely valuable to protecting our national security.  That is why I have introduced the bipartisan USA FREEDOM Act with Congressman Sensenbrenner, to end this dragnet collection and finally place appropriate safeguards on a wide range of government surveillance authorities.

We also must close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay.  In the coming days the Senate will take up and debate the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2014, which contains many provisions that are central to our national security. 

Among the most important are provisions that would help make it possible to close the detention facility at Guantanamo.  As long as Guantanamo remains open, it will serve as a recruiting tool for terrorists, needlessly siphon away critical national security dollars, and discredit America’s historic role as a global leader that defends human rights and the rule of law.

Currently, 164 individuals remain detained at Guantanamo.  Most of them have been there for more than a decade.  Of those, more than half – 84 – have been cleared for transfer to another country, but efforts to do so have stalled, largely due to irrationally onerous restrictions imposed by Congress.  These unnecessary and counterproductive hurdles have made it all but impossible to close Guantanamo, and they have severely damaged our credibility when we criticize other governments for their use of indefinite detention.

Provisions in the 2014 NDAA would ease these restrictions.  While incremental, they would streamline procedures for transferring detainees to other countries and, where appropriate, allow transfers to the United States for trial or detention.  These are common sense changes and they are necessary if we are serious about putting an end to this ugly chapter in our history.

There are sure to be some who will come to the floor of this Chamber over the next several days to tell us how dangerous and irresponsible it would be to close Guantanamo.  But the facts are simply not with them.  The bottom line is that Guantanamo hurts us; it does not help us.

Guantanamo does not make us safer.  We are all committed to protecting the national security of the United States and of the American people, but Guantanamo undermines those efforts.  Our national security and military leaders have concluded that keeping Guantanamo open is itself a risk to our national security.  The facility continues to serve as a recruitment tool for terrorists and weakens our alliances with key international partners.  

Guantanamo does not hold terrorists accountable.  The military commission system for trying these detainees does not work.  Federal courts have recently overturned two Guantanamo convictions in opinions that will prevent the military commission prosecutors from bringing conspiracy and material support charges against detainees – a fact acknowledged by the lead military prosecutor at Guantanamo.

These charges can be pursued, however, in Federal courts where our prosecutors have a strong track record of obtaining long prison sentences against those who seek to do us harm.  Since 9/11, Federal courts have convicted more than 500 terrorism-related suspects who remain securely behind bars.

Guantanamo also diverts scarce resources from critical national security efforts.  At a time when the Department of Defense faces deep and ongoing cuts, operating the Guantanamo detention facility costs about $450 million a year to house 164 individuals.  That is about $2.7 million per detainee, every year, and many of them have been there for a decade or more.

By comparison, it costs less than $80,000 per year to hold a prisoner at America’s most secure Federal prisons, which have housed hundreds of convicted terrorists for decades and never had an escape.  And, despite the fact that the Pentagon rejected a request earlier this year to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to overhaul the aging compound, House Republicans included this spending in their version of the National Defense Authorization Act. 

The money squandered on this long-failed experiment would be better served helping disabled veterans returning home from war and soldiers preparing to defend our Nation in the future.  This waste must end.

Guantanamo has undermined our reputation as a champion of human rights.  Countries that respect the rule of law and human rights do not lock away prisoners indefinitely without charge or trial.  We condemn authoritarian states that carry out such practices and we should not tolerate them for even our worst enemies.

The status quo at Guantanamo is untenable and I appreciate President Obama’s renewed vow to shutter this unnecessary, expensive, and counterproductive prison.  But in order for the President’s plan to be successful, Congress must do its part.

We must pass the common sense provisions in the National Defense Authorization Act.  I thank Senator Levin for his leadership on this issue as Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and I stand solidly with Senators Feinstein, Durbin and others who have long recognized that it is in our national security interest to close Guantanamo.  It is the fiscally responsible thing to do, it is the morally responsible thing to do, and, above all, it will make our country safer.

For over a decade, the indefinite detention of prisoners at Guantanamo has contradicted our most basic principles of justice, degraded our international standing, and harmed our national security. It is shameful that we are still debating this issue.  The status quo is unacceptable.

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