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Senate Hearing Learns Of No Clear Plan To Close Guantanamo


For his entire time in office, President Obama has not been able to make good on his campaign promise to shut down the military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and a Senate hearing yesterday perfectly illustrates why. Even though nearly 700 of those detainees sent there after 9/11 have been released, 122 remain and may be there for a long time as the debate continues to rage about Guantanamo. NPR's David Welna has more.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: A top Pentagon official made the case to the Senate Armed Services Committee that shutting down the prison at Guantanamo has become a national security imperative. To illustrate why, he pointed to recent events in the news.

The Pentagon's Brian McKeon.


BRIAN MCKEON: It is no coincidence that the recent ISIS videos showing the barbaric burning of a Jordanian pilot and the savage execution of a Japanese hostage each showed the victims clothed in an orange jumpsuit, believed by many to be the symbol of the Guantanamo detention facility.

WELNA: At the hearing, about a dozen protesters showed up in Guantanamo-orange outfits. And they kept quiet until South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham started arguing that those still at Guantanamo should remain in prison.


SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM: Common sense would tell us that if you're still in Guantanamo Bay after all of these years, you're probably a high risk...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Let's have the rule of law back.

WELNA: A white-haired man dressed in orange rose to defend the detainees.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Most of them are innocent. They were already cleared. All right. Arrest me. This country is disgusting.

WELNA: The protest underscored how some, including the President, consider Guantanamo a blight on the nation's tradition of due process and a rallying cry for enemies. Obama has refused to send any more prisoners there. In fact, he's recently stepped up the pace of Guantanamo detainees being transferred out to third countries. Senate Republicans, for their part, are pushing a bill to block those transfers, legislation that the White House opposes. The GOP opposition on Capitol Hill to closing Guantanamo is wide and intense.

Here is freshman Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton, a Tea Party-backed Army veteran of both Iraq and Afghanistan, at the hearing.


SENATOR TOM COTTON: In my opinion, the only problem with Guantanamo Bay is there are too many empty beds and cells there right now. We should be sending more terrorists there for further interrogation to keep this country safe. As far as I'm concerned, every last one of them can rot in hell. But as long as they don't do that, then they can rot in Guantanamo Bay.

WELNA: And for some, that would seem a very real prospect. That's because they have virtually no chance of being transferred to third countries.

Again, the Pentagon's McKeon.


MCKEON: It is likely that several detainees cannot be prosecuted because they are too dangerous to transfer, even with the security assurances, and they will remain in our custody.

WELNA: In other words, they can't be tried and they can't be released.

Indiana Democrat Joe Donnelly pressed McKeon on just what that might mean.


SENATOR JOE DONNELLY: If a detainee cannot be repatriated to their home country or a third country, the U.S. could face the need to keep that detainee in the U.S. So where does that individual go?

MCKEON: Sir, if we come to that position, which I think we're some ways away from that day, we will have - it's a very good question. And we will have to plan for that possibility.

WELNA: Complicating matters is a ban on transferring any detainees to the United States. John McCain, the Republican who chairs the Armed Services panel, says it's up to the Obama administration to come to Congress with a plan for closing Guantanamo, a goal McCain says he shares.


SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: You don't know when you're going to come forth with a proposal. We need a proposal.

WELNA: But McCain seemed to be leaving a door open for lifting that ban on transfers of Guantanamo detainees to the United States.


MCCAIN: The administration, we hope, will seek additional authorities to detain elsewhere, such as the United States.

WELNA: That could be significant coming from one of Congress's most respected military veterans who was a prisoner of war in Vietnam. But without a clear, detailed plan, no solution is yet in sight for closing Guantanamo. David Welna, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.