Transcript: Sen. John McCain’s response to Obama’s speech on closing Guantanamo – May 23, 2013

Partial transcript of press briefing remarks by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in response to President Barack Obama’s speech on closing the Guantanamo Bay Detention Facility on May 23, 2013:

Good afternoon.

I am joined by my colleagues – Sen. Saxby Chambliss, the Ranking Member on the Senate Intelligence Committee; Sen. Lindsey Graham, who is both Armed Services and Defense Appropriations; and Sen. Kelly Ayotte of the Armed Services Committee.

All four of us have been deeply involved in the issues that the President of the United States articulated his ideas and proposals on. There are some areas where we are in agreement with the President of the United States; there are some areas we are in disagreement.

First of all, I have always advocated the closure of the prison in Guantanamo Bay for a whole variety of reasons, which I will not discuss – go into now since we have three other of my colleagues to speak.

But we always wanted a plan. In 2009, Sen. Graham and I and the then-White House Counsel, Mr. [Gregory] Craig sat down and tried to articulate and come up with an agreement. We never got an agreement.

The administration never came up with a coherent or cohesive plan to close Guantanamo Bay. That’s why it is still open today.

And in light of the President’s speech today, we will pledge our willingness to work with the President of the United States to see that Guantanamo Bay is closed.

But as my colleagues will also state, there are a lot of moving parts to closing Guantanamo Bay – not the least of which is where do you put these people, which ones have to be kept on an almost indefinite basis, those who are eligible for military courts, and those who are eligible for civilian courts. All those are tied together.

So on the issue of Guantanamo Bay, we have pledged to work with the President, but this time we hope that there is a coherent plan for addressing that issue.

On the issue on the Authorization for the Use of Military Force [AUMF}, I believe we are still in a long, drawn-out conflict with Al Qaeda. To somehow argue that Al Qaeda is “on the run” comes from a degree of unreality that to me is really incredible. Al Qaeda is on the run – is on expanding all over the Middle East from Mali to Yemen and all places in between.

And to somehow think that we can bring the authorization for the use of military force to a complete closure contradicts reality and the facts on the ground. Al Qaeda will be with us for a long time.

I specifically want to point out the President’s remarks and I quote “We must strengthen the opposition in Syria while isolating extremist elements because the end of a tyrant should not give way to a tyranny of terrorism”.

“We must strengthen the opposition in Syria.” I agree, Mr. President. And we have watched that in the last over two years 80,000, 100,000 people massacred; presence of extremist elements on the increase, including Al Qaeda, in Syria; destabilization of Lebanon and Jordan – all of the things that the non-interventionists said would happen if we intervene have happened because we didn’t intervene.

And I’m dumbfounded that the President would say we must strengthen the opposition in Syria when, again, we are banking on the good will of the Russians and some kind of peace conference that may or may not take place next month.

There’s a number of other comments about the President’s speech that I would be glad to go into but maybe it’s better addressed in the question and answer period.

The Middle East is in turmoil. The Middle East cries out for American leadership. American leadership is absent in the Middle East, and that is the price we have paid in Iraq, that is the price we have paid in Libya, and that is the prices we are paying in Syria and other countries today.

I ask the President to lead – to be involved, to be engaged. That does not mean troops on the ground but it means an exercise of leadership, including providing a safe zone for people who are struggling against Bashar al-Assad and taking out Bashar al-Assad’s air assets and giving the resistance the weapons that they need as they are being massacred.

…The problem in 2009 when the White House Counsel came down and sat down with me and Sen. Graham was he said, “We’ll have a plan. We’ll have a plan so that the American people can be assured that these people will either be tried, stay in detention because they’re too difficult to release and sent to another country, or they will be tried – whether it will be military or civilian court.”

They never came forward with a proposal because they couldn’t send some of these people – the Yemenis – back to where they wanted them to go – to their home country, and also they had no plan as to where to move the detainees that they were going to keep.

Now, Sen. Graham, in defiance of all logic in my view, has offered that the Charleston Naval Shipyard be a place for a trial. Sen. Durbin has assured us that Illinois – a max prison there would be a place where they can send them.

So at least I am willing to sit down and discuss how we could do this. Because I happen to believe that Guantanamo Bay is a terrible, terrible image of the United States of America throughout, particularly the Arab, world.

But we can disagree on that. But all of us are in agreement until we have some kind of a plan from the administration then the status quo has to remain.

…Arm the rebels, give them a safe zone, take out Assad’s air on the ground, lead, go back into and help the Libyans do what we didn’t do after Gaddafi fell and that’s help them with their border security, building up a military, et cetera. Hopefully try to assist this huge refugee problem the Lebanese have. 10% of their population already is refugees. Can you imagine the United States of America if 10% of our population were refugees? The strain on the government, outbreak of fighting that’s going in Lebanon, it all comes down – what would I have the United States of America do? Lead. L-E-A-D. Four letter word.

The President does not lead, and I get that from every one of these leaders in the Middle East no matter where I go and that is a shame. And we sit by and watch these people massacre right away, and now we’re relying on the good will of the Russians, which we have been relying on now for over two years.

I don’t like to predict but given the fact that the Russians now give missiles and more sophisticated weapons to Bashar al-Assad, the fact that the overflights of Iraq of weapons still goes on, the fact that the Russians continue to supply them in every possible way, doesn’t give me a great deal of confidence about a “conference” although I know Geneva is a very nice place to meet actually this time of year.

We’ve passed through the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, as you know, yesterday a resolution to provide arms to the rebels. That’s a signal in the right direction. I would argue that 6 months ago you probably couldn’t get that through.

We had a resolution sponsored by Sen. Graham concerning Iran. It was pretty tough language.

Congress is finally waking up and acting in absence of presidential leadership and you will see additional resolution from Sen. Graham probably in the next month or so concerning Iran.

If, again, if the Iranian are watching, the President of the United States who said that if they use chemical weapons, it would cross a red line, do you think that the Iranians would think that we’re serious about their red lines? I don’t think so.

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4 Comments on “Transcript: Sen. John McCain’s response to Obama’s speech on closing Guantanamo – May 23, 2013

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