Transcript: Remarks by Sen. Dick Durbin on closing Guantanamo – July 24, 2013

Partial transcript of remarks by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) on “Closing Guantanamo: The National Security, Fiscal and Human Rights Implications.” The hearing was held before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights on July 24, 2013.

It’s been more than 11 years since the Bush administration established the detention center in Guantanamo Bay. In that time, I’ve spoken on the Senate floor more than 65 times about the need to close this prison.

I never imagined that in 2013 not only would Guantanamo still be open but some would be arguing that we keep it open indefinitely. The reality is that everyday it remains open, Guantanamo prison weakens our alliances, inspires our enemies, and calls into question our commitment to human rights.

Time and again, our most senior national security and military leaders have called for the closure of Guantanamo.

Listen to retired Air Force Major Matthew Alexander. He led the interrogation team that tracked down [Abu Musab] al-Zarqawi, the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq.

Here is what the…Major said: “I listened time and again to foreign fighters and Sunni Iraqis state that the number one reason they decided to pick up arms and join Al Qaeda were the abuses at Abu Ghraib and the authorized torture and abuse at Guantanamo Bay.” “It’s no exaggeration,” the Major said, “to say that at least half of our losses and casualties in that country have come at the hands of foreigners who joined the fray because of our program of detainee abuse.”

In addition to the national security cost, everyday that Guantanamo remains open, we are wasting taxpayer dollars.

According to updated information I received from the Department of Defense just yesterday, Guantanamo Bay detention costs for fiscal year 2012 are $448 million and fiscal year 2013 estimated at $454 million. Do the math: 166 prisoners, $454 million – we are spending $2.7 million per year for each detainee held at Guantanamo Bay. What does it cost to put a prisoner and keep them in the safest and most secure prison in America in Florence, Colorado? $78,000 a year against $2.7 million that we’re spending in Guantanamo.

This would be fiscally irresponsible during ordinary economic times. But it’s even worse when the Department of Defense is struggling to deal with the impacts of sequestration, including the furloughs and cutbacks in training for our troops.

Everyday, the soldiers and sailors serving at Guantanamo are doing a magnificent job under difficult circumstances.

I went to the Southern Command in Miami and I met with the men who are in charge of this responsibility. I can tell you they are saddened by this assignment but they’re doing exactly what they’re supposed to do. At great risk and at great separation from their family and personal challenge, they are accepting this challenge. And they look to us as to whether this assignment still makes sense.

Everyday at Guantanamo Bay, dozens of detainees are being forced-fed – a practice that the American Medical Association and International Red Cross condemn and that a federal judge in Washington recently found to be “painful, humiliating, and degrading”.

As President Obama asked in his May 23 national security speech, “Is this who we are? Is that something our founding fathers foresaw? Is that the America we want to leave our children?” “Our sense of justice is stronger than that,” the President said.

It’s worth taking a moment to recall the history of Guantanamo Bay. After 9/11, the Bush administration decided to set aside the Geneva Conventions, which has served us well in past conflicts, and set up an off-shore prison in Guantanamo in order to evade the requirements of those treaties and our Constitution.

John Yoo, working in that White House, wrote on Dec. 28, 2001 an Office of Legal Counsel memo to Chairman Haynes and said that Guantanamo was “the legal equivalent of outer space”, ” a perfect space to escape the law”.

But others, even within the Bush administration, disagreed. Gen. Colin Powell, then the Secretary of State, objected. He said disregarding our treaty obligations “will reverse over a century of U.S. policy and practice and undermine the protections of the law of war for our own troops. It will undermine critical support among allies, making military cooperation more difficult to sustain.”

Then Defense Secretary [Donald] Rumsfeld approved the use of abusive interrogation techniques at Guantanamo. These techniques became the bedrock of interrogation policy in Iraq, according to a Defense Department interrogation. The horrible images that emerged from Abu Ghraib are seared into our memory some of the most outrageous and extreme techniques.

Guantanamo became an international embarrassment and an international controversy.

The Supreme Court repeatedly struck down the administration’s detention policies. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor famously wrote for the majority in the Hamdi case, “A state of war is not a blank check for a President.”

By 2006, even President Bush – President Bush – said he wanted to close Guantanamo.

In 2008, the Presidential candidates of both major parties supported closing Guantanamo.

Within 48 hours of his inauguration, President [Barack] Obama issued an executive order prohibiting torture and setting up a review process for all Guantanamo detainees.

I’ll be the first to acknowledge the administration could be doing more to close Guantanamo.

Last week, Sen. [Dianne] Feinstein and I met with senior White House officials to discuss what they were doing under existing law to transfer detainees out of Guantanamo.

But let’s be clear, the President’s authority has been limited by Congress. We have enacted restrictions on detainee transfers – including a ban on transfers to the United States from Guantanamo – that make it very difficult, if not impossible, to actually close the facility. It’s time to lift those restrictions and move forward with shutting down Guantanamo.

We can transfer most of the detainees safely to foreign countries and we can bring others to the United States, where they can be tried in federal court or held under the law of war until the end of hostilities.

Let’s look at the track records.

Since 9/11 – since 9/11 – nearly 500 terrorists have been tried and convicted in our federal courts and are now being safely held in federal prisons. No one – no one – has ever escaped a federal super-max prison or military prison.

In contrast, only six individuals have been convicted by military commissions. Two of those convictions have been overturned by the courts.

Today, nearly 12 years after 9/11, the architects of the 9/11 attacks are still awaiting trial in Guantanamo.

During his confirmation hearing, I discussed with Jim Comey, who was Deputy Attorney General in the Bush administration and is the nominee for FBI Director, this whole case. Here’s what he told me: “We have about a 20-year track record in handling, particularly, Al Qaeda cases in federal courts. The federal courts and federal prosecutors are effective in accomplishing two goals in every one of these situations – getting information and incapacitating terrorists.”

Some may argue we can’t close Guantanamo because of the risks of detainees may join and engage in terrorist activities. But studies show that even in our federal prisons the recidivism rate is more than 40% – far higher than the rate of any of those released from Guantanamo. And the often quoted recidivism estimate includes hundreds of detainees transferred under the Bush administration when the standards for release were much more lax.

No one is suggesting that closing Guantanamo is risk free or that no detainees will ever engage in terrorist activities if they’re transferred. But if a former detainee does return to terrorism, he will likely meet the fate of Said al-Shihri, the number two official in Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, who was recently killed in a drone strike.

The bottom line is our national security and military leaders have concluded that the risk of keeping Guantanamo open far outweighs the risk of closing it because the facility continues to harm our alliances and serve as a recruitment tool for terrorists. It’s time to end this sad chapter of our history.

Eleven years if far too long. We need to close Guantanamo.

…Before I recognize the first witness, I ask unanimous consent to enter into record a statement from retired Maj. Gen. Michael Leonard, who served in the Marine Corps for 37 years. Gen. Leonard led the first Joint Task Force Guantanamo, which established the detention facility in 2002. He couldn’t be here today but want to make sure his views were in the record…

…As detailed in his statement, Gen. Leonard tried to comply with the Geneva Conventions and asked to bring in the Red Cross to inspect this facility. He was rebuked by civilian political appointees.

Here’s what he said:

“We squandered the good will of the world…after we were attacked by our actions in Guantanamo. Our decision to keep Guantanamo open has actually helped our enemies because it validated every negative perception of the United States. To argue we cannot transfer detainees to a secure facility in the United States because it would be a threat to public security is ludicrous.”

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