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With Friends Like These

By Dan Froomkin
1:00 PM ET, 05/20/2009


Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. (Brendan Smialowski - Bloomberg)

Here's one thing that hasn't changed in the Obama era: Republicans are still able to come up with scare tactics that turn Senate Democrats into a terrified and incoherent bunch of mewling babies.

It's hard to imagine anything more ridiculous than the suggestion that bringing some of the terror suspects currently incarcerated in Guantanamo to high-security prisons in America will pose a threat to local communities.

It is nothing more than a bogeyman argument, easily refuted with a little common sense. (Isn't that what prisons are for?) But that's assuming you don't spend your every moment living in fear of Republican attack ads questioning your devotion to the security of the country. Or that you have a modicum of respect for the intelligence of the American public.

Ah well. Old habits die hard, I guess. And Senate Democrats apparently remain an easily frightened bunch, after eight years of faint-hearted submission.

Here's a question. Democratic congressional leaders ostensibly want to close Guantanamo, which they recognize has become the ultimate symbol of the Bush administration's violations of human rights. They acknowledge that keeping it open only makes the country less safe -- and that any number of the detainees there have been imprisoned sometimes cruelly and often under false pretenses, for as long as seven years. So they want all the detainees there to -- what? Vanish? Die? How do they expect any other country to take custody of anyone if we refuse to do it ourselves?

Worrying about releasing prisoners here is one thing. But refusing to even consider putting them in our prisons is nonsense. It it tantamount to insisting that Guantanamo stay open.

But as Shailagh Murray writes in The Washington Post: "Under pressure from Republicans and concerned about the politics of relocating terrorism suspects to U.S. soil, Senate Democrats rejected President Obama's request for funding to close the Guantanamo Bay prison and vowed to withhold federal dollars until the president decides the fate of the facility's 240 detainees...

"As recently as last week, Senate Democrats had hoped to preserve a portion of Obama's Guantanamo funding request. But their resolve crumbled in the face of a concerted Republican campaign warning of dire consequences if some detainees ended up in prisons or other facilities in the United States, a possibility that Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has acknowledged."

Specifically, as the Associated Press is now reporting, the Senate voted 90 to 6 today for an amendment that would keep any detainee held in the Guantanamo prison from being transferred to the United States.

Here's the transcript of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's nonsensical news conference yesterday.

Reid: "I think there's a general feeling... that the American people, and certainly the Senate, overwhelmingly doesn't want terrorists to be released in the United States. And I think we're going to stick with that...."

Q. "No one's talking about releasing them. We're talking about putting them in prison somewhere in the United States."

Reid: "Can't put them in prison unless you release them."

Q. "Sir, are you going to clarify that a little bit? I mean -- "

Reid: "I can't -- I can't -- I can't make it any more clear than the statement I have given to you. We will never allow terrorists to be released in the United States. I think the majority -- I speak for the majority of the Senate....

Q. "[I]f a detainee is adjudicated not to be a terrorist, could that detainee then enter the United States?"

Reid: "Why don't we wait for a plan from the president? All we're doing now is nitpicking on language that I have given you. I've been as clear as I can. I think I've been pretty clear...."

Q. "But Senator, Senator, it's not that you're not being clear when you say you don't want them released. But could you say -- would you be all right with them being transferred to an American prison?"

Reid: "Not in the United States."

Q. (OFF-MIKE)

Reid: "I think I've had about enough of this."

Joseph Williams writes in the Boston Globe: "The decision to buck the president on Guantanamo left Democrats on the defensive and Republicans reveling at the discord....

"Caroline Frederickson, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Washington legislative office, said she and others...believe that the White House and Democrats are reacting to Republican fearmongering about terrorists on US soil.

"Any legitimate terror suspect, she said, would almost certainly be held in remote, high-security 'supermax' federal prisons, which are already home to convicted terrorists like British shoe bomber Richard Reid and Zacarias Moussaoui, the alleged 20th hijacker of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

"'That's what these prisons are designed for,' she said."

David M. Herszenhorn writes in the New York Times: "On Tuesday Republicans, including the Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who has been warning for weeks about the dangers of closing the prison, applauded the Democrats' decision.

"At a news conference, Mr. McConnell said he hoped it was a prelude to keeping the camp open and dangerous terrorism suspects offshore, where he said they belong."

Herszenhorn writes: "Administration officials have indicated that if the Guantánamo camp closes as scheduled more than 100 prisoners may need to be moved to the United States, including 50 to 100 who have been described as too dangerous to release.

"Of the 240 detainees, 30 have been cleared for release. Some are likely to be transferred to foreign countries, though other governments have been reluctant to take them. Britain and France have each accepted one former detainee. And while as many as 80 of the detainees will be prosecuted, it remains unclear what will happen to those who are convicted and sentenced to prison."

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said yesterday that Obama will be giving a speech tomorrow on his Guantanamo plans, as well as other issues relating to detainees and detention policy.

"Thursday he'll outline his thoughts on detainee and detention issues, as well as the other issues like photos and memos," Gibbs said. "He'll outline the reasoning of why he strongly believes, and many in both parties believe, that closing Guantanamo Bay is in our best national security and foreign policy interest. And he will go through a number of the decisions related to that and other issues that we've discussed in the last few weeks that all relate to it."

Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei write for Politico: "Obama advisers are comparing Thursday's speech to his big-picture Georgetown University speech on the economy last month — not intended necessarily to produce 'hard news' but a sustained effort to describe and defend his policies and the political and intellectual assumptions behind them."

They also note that former vice president Cheney will be giving his own national-security speech tomorrow morning at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

Glenn Greenwald blogs for Salon: "The 'debate' over all the bad and scary things that will happen if Obama closes Guantanamo and we then incarcerate those detainees in American prisons is so painfully stupid even by the standards of our political discourse that it's hard to put into words."

One key step in the process, Greenwald writes, entails "'Journalists' who are capable of nothing other than mindlessly reciting what they hear...depicting the Right's frightened neurosis as a Serious argument, and then overnight, a consensus emerges: Democrats are in big trouble politically unless they show that they, too, are as deeply frightened as the Right is."

Kevin Drum blogs for Mother Jones: "His own party won't support him against even the most transparent and insipid demagoguery coming from the conservative noise machine. The GOP's brain trust isn't offering even a hint of a substantive case that the U.S. Army can't safely keep a few dozen detainees behind bars in a military prison, but Dems are caving anyway. Because they're scared."

Also see Jon Stewart's take on the issue from last night's Daily Show.

Meanwhile, in a bit of related news, Josh Gerstein reports for Politico: "A federal judge has rejected aspects of the Obama administration's definition of who can legally be held as a prisoner in the war on terror.

"In a 22-page decision issued Tuesday evening, U.S. District Court Judge John Bates ruled that members in Al Qaeda or the Taliban could be detained, but that mere support for Al Qaeda activities is not a sufficient basis for the government to hold prisoners at Guantanamo Bay or elsewhere.

"Bates said he pressed the Justice Department to explain why rendering assistance to Al Qaeda was enough to lock someone up without criminal charges.

"'After repeated attempts by the Court to elicit a more definitive justification for the 'substantial support' concept in the law of war, it became clear that the government has none,' wrote Bates, who was appointed to the bench by President George W. Bush."

Nedra Pickler of the Associated Press takes a somewhat different view of the ruling, writing that the judge did allow the United States to hold some prisoners indefinitely.

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