Retired Marine Gen. James Mattis took a stance Tuesday against the release or transfer of prisoners from the Guantanamo Bay detention facility in Cuba.
The policy should be that “when we take them, we hold them” until hostilities have ended, Mattis said in response to questions at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing.
President Obama has renewed his efforts to close Guantanamo by transferring or releasing the remaining 122 prisoners, but Mattis said there was too much risk that those released would return to the battlefield.
“If the enemy wants to fight, they should know we’re coming after you and if taken prisoner, you’ll be kept a prisoner until the war is over,” said Mattis, the former head of the U.S. Central Command who also led Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Obama’s critics have charged that the recidivism rate for prisoners released from Guantanamo ranges as high as 30 percent. The Obama administration maintains that the recidivism rate is more in the range of 6.8 percent.
Mattis also warned of the danger posed by prisoners released from Guantanamo who were captured again by U.S. troops. The danger was that the troops would violate their own code of ethics and “take things into their own hands,” Mattis said.
On more general policy issues, Mattis was critical of Congress as well as the White House for putting the U.S. in a “reactive crouch” in the face of national security threats and failing to provide the military with the resources to meet the challenge.
“We’ve been in a strategy-free environment” on a range of issues, Mattis said, “and it didn’t start with this (Obama) administration.”
The time was ripe for the U.S. “to come out now from its reactive crouch and to take a firm strategic stance in defense of our allies” in the Mideast and elsewhere, Mattis said.
The failure of the White House to develop a “new security architecture” for the Mideast has left the region in constant turmoil and put the U.S. in the position “where our influence is at its lowest point in four decades,” Mattis said.
On Afghanistan, Mattis said the White House risked failure by adhering to strict timelines for the withdrawal of U.S. forces. “We need to consider if we’re asking for the same outcome there as we saw last summer in Iraq if we pull out all our troops on the administration’s proposed timeline,” Mattis said.
Mattis was also critical of the Republican-controlled Congress on Iran and the sequestration process of automatic military spending cuts.
Mattis urged Congress to hold off on imposing new economic sanctions on Iran while negotiations were underway on reining in Iran’s nuclear programs.
“I believe that you should question the value of Congress adding new sanctions while international negotiations are ongoing,” Mattis said.
On sequestration, Mattis said Congress mistakenly approved the process “because it was viewed as so injurious that it would force wise choices. It has failed,” Mattis said in calling on the Committee to lead the effort to repeal sequestration, which he said was eroding readiness “while sapping troop morale.”
Mattis joined retired Army Gen. Jack Keane and retired Adm. William “Fox” Fallon, also a former head of U.S. Central Command, at one of a series of hearings called by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the new SASC chairman, as part of a series on the global challenges facing the U.S.
On Thursday, the Committee was scheduled to hear from former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and Madeleine Albright.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., presided at the hearing in place of McCain, who was part of the presidential delegation paying respects to the late King Abdullah in Saudi Arabia.
In his testimony, Keane, the former Army vice chief of staff, faulted the Obama administration for failing to blunt Iran’s drive for regional influence. Keane asked “is there any doubt that Iran is on the march and is systematically moving toward their regional hegemonic objectives?”
Keane also warned that Al Qaeda and its affiliates have not wavered in their objectives to “drive the U.S. out of the region” and “eventually achieve world domination” for radical Islam, Keane said. “It is unmistakeable that our policies have failed and the unequivocal explanation is U.S. policy has focused on disengaging from the Middle East.”
Keane said he favored imposing a no-fly zone over Syria, a policy backed by McCain, but Mattis and Fallon disagreed. Fallon warned against the tendency to overrate the strength of ISIS. “The extent to which we continue to hype them is counter-productive,” Fallon said.