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Sen. Risch favors keeping Guantanamo detention facility open

U.S. Sen. Jim Risch discusses his recent trip to the Guantanamo Bay detention facility in Cuba, in Boise on Friday. (Betsy Russell)
U.S. Sen. Jim Risch discusses his recent trip to the Guantanamo Bay detention facility in Cuba, in Boise on Friday. (Betsy Russell)

BOISE – Idaho Sen. Jim Risch, who visited the Guantanamo Bay detention facility this week, says he believes it should stay open indefinitely and the detainees there should be held indefinitely – though President Barack Obama pledged shortly after he was elected to shut the facility down.

The issue has been hotly debated in Congress, which voted in December to ban transfers of Guantanamo detainees to U.S. locations or to third countries, except under very narrow circumstances. That ban is temporary; the National Defense Authorization Act, which is now pending in the Senate, could determine Guantanamo’s future.

“It’s been a matter of constant debate in Washington, D.C., constant debate in the media and constant debate in the international community,” said Risch, who serves on the Senate foreign relations and intelligence committees.

Risch, who visited the facility in Cuba on Monday, said conditions there are far better than they were shortly after the 9/11 attacks, when they caused international outrage. “The orange jumpsuits are gone. Camp X-Ray is closed,” Risch said, referring to a temporary detention facility. “The pendulum has swung way back the other way.”

Detainees at Guantanamo now “get very nourishing meals,” Risch said, and “the sensitivity toward their cultural and religious practices is very high.”

“When I was there,” he said, “it was 106 degrees and humidity was higher, but once you entered the facility, it was air-conditioned and kept at a very moderate temperature. … It’s a whole different ballgame than it was 10 years ago.”

The initial facility there, opened shortly after the 2001 terrorist attacks, was open-air and tin-roofed. It’s now a modern prison facility. Guantanamo houses 171 men, mostly from Yemen, Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia; at its height, it had more than 700.

“They’re people who were taken on the battlefield and have important information,” Risch said. “In fact, they are prisoners of war – they were picked up during a war.” They may not have been uniformed soldiers, Risch said, but he said the war on terrorism is a different kind of war. “We have to defend ourselves,” he said. “The hostilities are ongoing.”

Mason Clutter, counsel to the Rule of Law program at the Constitution Project, a bipartisan Washington, D.C., think tank that tracks issues related to Guantanamo, said for her organization, “It’s not a matter of closing the facility or keeping it open – it’s more of a matter of ending the harmful policies that have come out of Guantanamo, the policies of using military commissions to try these individuals, as well as the policy of detention without charge. … There may be room to hold, pursuant to the laws of war, some of the individuals who are at Guantanamo Bay, but certainly not all of them.”

Clutter said the Obama administration in 2010 identified 36 of the detainees as appropriate for prosecution either in military commissions or civilian federal court, while it identified 47 for indefinite detention without charge. But the December congressional vote stymied moves toward civilian trials; in March, President Barack Obama issued an executive order permitting ongoing detention, while allowing new military commission charges and requiring periodic reviews of those detainees held indefinitely.

The Constitution Project maintains that detainees at Guantanamo aren’t receiving appropriate due process.

Risch said Obama has offered no appropriate alternative to Guantanamo.

Congress has been leery of Obama’s plans to close Guantanamo, and a group of mostly Republican senators introduced legislation in May to keep the facility open and designate it for “current and future detention” of terrorism suspects tied to al-Qaida, the Taliban or “an affiliated group.”

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