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Howard P. McKeon: The importance of Gitmo

Posted: August 8, 2009 6:33 p.m.
Updated: August 9, 2009 4:55 a.m.
Last month, I had the opportunity to lead a congressional fact-finding mission to America's detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and spend some time with the men and women of the military serving there.

What I found was a state-of-the-art court room and detention facility that allows us to humanely detain and fairly prosecute the most dangerous terrorists this country holds, including the plotters of the 9/11 attacks.

"Gitmo," as it is called, serves many important purposes.

First, it is where the United States detains approximately 230 suspected terrorists captured in the ongoing global war on terrorism.
These dangerous individuals include Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the self-declared mastermind of 9/11.

Second, it serves as the principal location for the military commissions that have been used to try the most unsavory terrorists for war crimes.

Some might ask why I'm focused on Gitmo now. The answer is simple.

On Jan. 22, 2009, while still settling into the White House, the president of the United States stood before the American people and announced that he would uphold his political promise to close Gitmo within a year and suspend all military commissions pending a review by the administration.

Additionally, the president announced the creation of a Detainee Task Force that would review America's current terrorist detention policies and practices and recommend a path forward within six months.

Congressional Republicans were skeptical, but we did not immediately oppose the president's actions.

We thought we should wait for the president to put forward a plan to the American public.

Following the president's announcement, we immediately pointed to the danger of establishing a definite date to close Gitmo without having an alternative location identified to detain these dangerous terrorists.

In the absence of a clear policy from the administration on how captured terrorists should be detained, unelected federal judges will make decisions about releasing or detaining terrorists.

Our soldiers should not have to risk their lives capturing terrorists, only to see an unelected judge order their release and allow them to return to the battlefield only a few months later.

As I was flying back from Gitmo, I received notice that the administration would not meet the president's self-imposed six-month deadline for announcing the president's new detention policy.

This delay is disturbing on many levels and deserves the attention of the American public.

First, the administration, in its haste to distance itself from the policies of the Bush presidency, has placed an undue burden on residents in several American communities, including some in California, that have been mentioned as possible alternatives to Gitmo.

Earlier this year, I joined with House Republican leaders to support legislation which would have required the president to, 1) notify a state governor and legislature 60 days prior to the transfer or release of a Gitmo detainee into their state; 2) obtain the consent of the state governor and legislature to the transfer or release; and 3) certify to Congress that the transfer or release of a Gitmo detainee would not adversely affect the national security of the United States or residents of the United States.

Second, the administration's silence has allowed unelected judges to affect our military operations in Afghanistan.

According to some analysts, our forces who are fighting al-Qaeda and Taliban terrorists along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border have limited their activities since one federal judge decided that fighters captured outside of Afghanistan are now afforded the right to challenge their detention in U.S. courts.

That means a terrorist fighting our soldiers overseas can petition an unelected federal judge in the United States and possibly win his release back into the battlefield.

These are rights far beyond what any other country has given prisoners captured during a war.

Third, the president's stated preference for prosecuting terrorists in federal criminal courts instead of a military commission system to prosecute violations of the laws of war is troubling.

Following my visit to Gitmo, I am convinced that sufficient protections exist for these detainees to be tried fairly through military commissions, which were created by a bipartisan majority in Congress.

The president himself has rightly noted that military commissions have a long history of protecting sensitive intelligence sources and methods while allowing for the introduction of evidence unique to battlefield contingencies.

On the other hand, federal criminal courts do not have a strong track record of prosecuting accused terrorists.

I remain concerned that liberal activists will attempt to force the president to select federal criminal courts as the primary venue for trying Gitmo terrorists.

The president should listen to America's top military lawyers and not implement a policy that favors the use of federal criminal courts.

That approach would undermine the fair and just system of military commissions we have put in place, a system that will bring swift justice to terrorists who caused the deaths of many Americans.

At the end of the day, the administration's delay in developing a transparent plan for detaining and prosecuting terrorists captured on the battlefield is a disservice to the American public and our uniformed personnel who are honorably serving on the frontlines in Iraq and Afghanistan and at Guantanamo Bay.

Congressman Howard P. "Buck" McKeon, a Republican, represents the 25th District of California in Congress. He is the leading Republican on the House Armed Services Committee and a senior Republican on the House Education and Labor Committee. His column reflects his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal.


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