Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., speaks to reporters just off the Senate floor during votes, on December 4, 2014.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., speaks to reporters just off the Senate floor during votes, on December 4, 2014. J. Scott Applewhite/AP

GOP Senators Come Out Swinging on Guantanamo

Joint Chiefs Chairman Dempsey says closing Guantanamo is in the national interest. McCain says his positions are 'wrong' and 'ridiculous.' By Molly O’Toole

Republican national security leaders newly in charge of the Senate are hurrying to block President Barack Obama’s resurgent effort to empty the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Just one week into the new Congress, the senators accused Obama of putting an old campaign promise ahead of current U.S. security interests and blasted the nation’s top military officer for wanting to close the facility.

On Tuesday, Republican Sens. John McCain, Ariz.; Kelly Ayotte, N.H.; Lindsey Graham, S.C. and Richard Burr, N.C. announced new legislation that for two years would prohibit detainee transfers to Yemen and suspend international transfers of prisoners who the Defense Department has designated as medium- or high-risk. In recent months, Obama has ordered the release of dozens of prisoners to foreign countries. The GOP bill, scheduled to be introduced Tuesday, also would extend for two years the prohibition on any detainee transfers to the United States, as well as any construction or modification of facilities on U.S. soil to hold them.

The senators argued that President Obama’s focus on “fulfilling a campaign promise” without any plan for executing it is threatening national security and American troops by sending detainees back into the fight. They claimed a roughly 30 percent terrorism recidivism rate among prisoners released from Guantanamo. Since last May, the Pentagon has transferred 27 detainees from Guantanamo, including 15 last month, according to Ayotte.

“What the administration has been doing is to fulfill really a campaign promise, made by the president, which was to close Guantanamo,” Ayotte said. "But if you look at the security situation that we're facing around the world now, now is not the time."

On Sunday, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey said he supported closing Guantanamo, calling it a “psychological scar on our national values.” “It’s in the national interest to close Guantanamo,” Dempsey told “Fox News Sunday.”

McCain, who previously has called for Dempsey’s resignation, said Dempsey’s opinion carries no weight.

“Time after time, [Dempsey] has made statements that are not only wrong, but ridiculous,” McCain said, citing Dempsey’s past positions on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and against arming the Syrian opposition. "I don't believe that, certainly not with this individual, that General Dempsey's opinion carries any weight whatsoever. Because he obviously blatantly ignores, and it's sad to say, the fact that so many of these individuals who have been released are now putting the men and women under his command's lives in danger."

“He’s just wrong on this,” Ayotte interjected.

McCain has made no show of hiding his disapproval of the president’s national security experts -- calling for Obama’s entire national security team to resign over Iraq -- but the remarks are a vivid demonstration that the new Republican majority will be pursuing national security priorities with aggression.

The senators repeatedly used the recent terrorist attacks in Paris as an example of why it is too risky for Guantanamo to be emptied at this time. Ayotte, whose proposal to ban transfers to Yemen was stripped from last year’s defense authorization bill, pointed out that two of the alleged attackers reportedly received training in Yemen, where al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, is based.

“Yemen is one of the most dangerous countries that -- basically it's a wild, wild west for terrorists right now," Ayotte said.

It remains unclear precisely what connection the two suspected attackers, who were brothers, may have had to AQAP, or whether it or another terrorist group, such as the Islamic State, ordered or helped coordinate the series of attacks in Paris.

Basically, [Yemen] is a wild, wild west for terrorists right now.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H.

Dempsey did say on Sunday that “dozens” of the detainees at Guantanamo are too much of a national security threat to be transferred to other countries -- they “simply will not be released,” he said. But he declined to say what should be done instead.

“Isn't that a fair question for our elected leaders?” he said, continuing, “That’s a policy decision.”

McCain and Graham said they both have spoken with Obama personally about closing Guantanamo, and alternatives to such international transfers, including the United States. But they excoriated the president for never coming to them with a plan.

“We can no longer sit on the sidelines and watch the jail be emptied,” Graham said, though he added he does not oppose the Cuba facility’s closure -- meaning moving detainees to another location, such as the U.S. “I have never opposed bringing people into America, if you have a maximum security facility run by the military that is away from population centers.” One of the candidates that the Pentagon has considered for a site is the brig at Joint Base Charleston, in Graham’s home state.

“The only reason most of these people have not planned another 9/11 at Guantanamo Bay is because they’ve been in jail,” Graham said. “If you let them out of jail, they’ll be on the ground floor planning another 9/11.”

McCain also said he’d support the transfer of detainees to the U.S., under the circumstances Graham described. But the proposed legislation from the senators -- if passed -- would put a two-year ban on such transfers or the construction of new detention facilities on U.S. soil that could meet that criteria.

McCain said, “We can repeal the legislation in a New York minute if [Obama] comes up with a plan.”

The Senate Armed Services Committee, which McCain chairs, will consider the bill independently rather than as part of the annual defense authorization bill, the senator said, but he does not yet have a timeline. The senators also said they’ve received support from the House for the measure.

At the beginning of next month, McCain will preside over confirmation hearings for defense secretary nominee Ash Carter. Though senators on both sides of the aisle have indicated Carter will be confirmed, closing Guantanamo is likely to be a contentious issue during the hearings.