Obama administration officials argued Thursday against proposed legislation that would effectively scuttle President Obama's effort to empty the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, detention facility before he leaves office.
"The problem with Guantanamo Bay is too many empty cells," said Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ariz., who backs the legislation. As far as he was concerned, the remaining 122 detainees could "rot in Gitmo" for the rest of their lives, said Cotton, a West Point graduate and Iraq veteran.
"My goal is to keep people in jail" who pose a national security threat, said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.
At the Senate Armed Services Committee Hearing, Brian McKeon, an undersecretary of Defense for Policy, said the administration opposed the legislation offered by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the Committee's chairman, and three other Republican senators that would ban most prisoner transfers out of Guantanamo for the next two years.
"Because this legislation, if enacted, would effectively block progress toward the goal of closing the Guantanamo Bay detention center, the administration opposes it," McKeon said.
Several committee Republicans cited the recent exchange of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl for five Taliban prisoners held at Guantanamo as one of their main reasons for backing the proposed legislation.
Bergdahl was held by the Taliban-aligned Haqqani network in Afghanistan from June 2009 to May 2014. The five Taliban members released in exchange for Bergdahl were sent to the Gulf state of Qatar under an agreement with the U.S. that they would be held by the Qataris for at least one year.
Recent reports have alleged that at least one of the so-called "Taliban five" has been in contact with the Taliban, but McKeon said none of the five has "returned to the battlefield."
McKeon and two other administration officials declined to discuss in open session what agreements the U.S. has with the Qataris on the status of the former Taliban detainees when their one-year stay in Qatar ends in May.
Cotton and others questioned McKeon on why the Obama administration ignored the legal requirement to give Congress 30-days notification that the prisoner swap was about to happen.
McKeon acknowledged that the 30-day notice was not given but said "our lawyers believe we had a valid legal reason" in the necessity to avoid a leak.
One of several points of contention at the hearing was the recidivism rate for prisoners released or transferred from Guantanamo. Republicans have tended to cite an estimate that nearly 30 percent of the Guantanamo prisoners have returned to terrorism. The Obama administration has maintained that the rate was about 6.8 percent.
Nicholas Rasmussen, director of the National Counter-Terrorism Center, said the recidivism figure of about 30 percent referred to a period in the administration of former President George W. Bush, when the population of Guantanamo increased to about 620.
Rasmussen said that about 17 percent of the prisoners transferred during the Bush administration were "confirmed" by the intelligence community as having returned to the battlefield, and 12 percent were suspected of returning.
The recidivism rate under Obama has gone down to about 6.8 percent confirmed and another 1.1 percent suspected of returning to terrorism, Rasmussen said.
Several Democrats contrasted the cost of keeping prisoners at Guantanamo with the cost of holding them at a "supermax" in the United States.
Since Guantanamo opened in 2002, the costs to the U.S. of maintaining the detention facility have totaled about $5 billion, including $493 million annually for the last five years, said Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va.
In 2014, it cost the U.S. $3 million per prisoner at Guantanamo as opposed to $78,000 at a supermax prison in the U.S., Kaine said.
The Guantanamo debate was complicated for McCain, a former POW held for more than five years in North Vietnamese prisons.
"For many years, I have believed that it would further U.S. national security interests to close the Guantanamo detention facility. I still do," McCain said.
"The problem is that, for more than six years now, the Obama Administration has offered no comprehensive plan to responsibly close the Guantanamo detention facility," or deal with prisoners who cannot be released or tried in U.S. courts, McCain said.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at email@example.com