Release of Guatanamo detainees reignites national security debate

By Hannah Rank and Katie Murar, Medill News Service  |  Aug. 17, 2016 at 10:30 AM
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WASHINGTON, D.C. -- President Barack Obama's decision to release 15 detainees from Guantánamo Bay this week reignited the debate between the political parties over what to do with suspected terrorists.

According to the Pentagon, the transfer came after officials determined the prisoners were no longer "a continuing significant threat to the security of the United States."

The 15 detainees have been transferred to the United Arab Emirates, the Department of Defense confirmed Monday.

Going back to his 2008 campaign, Obama has made clear his desire to close the detention facility, a goal he has not reached with only a few remaining months in his presidency. But House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Tex., strongly opposes the releases, calling the president's policy "reckless."

"President Obama is more focused on releasing hardened terrorists than capturing new ones -- a reckless policy that is putting America and the West at risk," McCaul said in a statement. "We are a nation at war, and our commander-in-chief shouldn't be handing back operatives to the other side."

The Guantanamo Bay detention camp was opened in 2002 by the George W. Bush administration in direct response to the 9/11 attacks. In its history, the military prison has held 780 individuals suspected of terrorism overseas.

None of the 15 detainees released Monday was formally charged, though they were suspected of crimes ranging from associating with Osama bin Laden to orchestrating attacks in the Afghanistan war. Of the released, 12 are from Yemen and three are from Afghanistan.

While Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has not discussed Guantánamo at length on the campaign trail, she has supported Obama's decision to close the prison.

"Over the years, Guantánamo has inspired more terrorists than it has imprisoned," the former secretary of state said in February. "It has not strengthened our national security; it has damaged it."

In contrast, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has spoken at various times in support of Guantánamo Bay remaining open.

On Tuesday, the Trump campaign said, "The Clinton-Obama plan to close Gitmo and release terrorists will harm America's national security."

Trump had previously said he wants to "load" Guantánamo "with some bad dudes."

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce issued a statement condemning Obama's decision, saying it puts "American lives at risk."

"Once again, hardened terrorists are being released to foreign countries where they will be a threat," Royce said. "Too many have already died at the hands of former detainees. I fear we will be dealing with the consequences of this recklessness for years to come."

The American Civil Liberties Union, a left-leaning organization dedicated to protecting rights under the First and Fourth Amendments, viewed Obama's decision to release prisoners as a positive step in closing Guantánamo, which ACLU sees as "a catastrophic failure on every front."

"As the number of men at Guantánamo dwindles, so does any rationale for keeping the detention camp open," ACLU National Security Project Director Hina Shamsi said in a statement. "It's also critically important for the Obama administration to end what Guantánamo represents, which is the policy of indefinite detention without charge or trial."

Retired Maj. Gen. Michael Lehnert, one of the commanders tasked with constructing and operating the detention center upon its creation in 2002, has recently become a vocal opponent of the center and called for its shutdown.

"Guantánamo's continued existence hurts us in our prosecution of the fight against terrorists," Lehnert told the House Homeland Security Subcommittee. "It feeds into the narrative that the United States is not a nation of laws nor one that respects human rights."

Sixty-one detainees remain at Guantánamo, down from around 240 when Obama took office.

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