By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 15, 2009
The intensifying debate over what to do with 241 detainees in the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, has pushed the candidates for Virginia governor to address widespread speculation that at least two locations in the state, including Alexandria and Fairfax County, could receive prisoners.
Although the three Democrats and one Republican broadly agree that detainees should be kept out of Virginia if possible, the issue has caused some state political leaders to divide along party lines over President Obama's promise to close the prison, which has become an unpopular symbol of the United States' handling of the war on terror.
Robert F. McDonnell, the lone Republican candidate running this year, has staked out the clearest position: "Keep Guantanamo Bay Detainees Out of Virginia," read a recent statement from his campaign. Democrats Terry McAuliffe and R. Creigh Deeds issued more softly worded positions, with McAuliffe voicing "serious concerns" about housing detainees in Virginia and a Deeds spokesman saying it's a "bad idea." The third Democrat, Brian Moran, took no position, promising to evaluate Obama's plan "once it comes out."
Republicans and Democrats alike have expressed doubts about releasing Guantanamo detainees or putting them on trial on U.S. soil. Virginia Republicans in Congress, including House Minority Whip Eric Cantor, have proposed a blanket prohibition on the sending of detainees, whether for release or for trial in federal courts, to states that don't want them. Democrats, meanwhile, say Republicans are fear-mongering and seeking to create an issue in Virginia, where the parties are locked in the only hotly contested statewide race in the nation this year.
How Obama deals with detainees has become a central question in Congress, where the House approved language yesterday blocking the expenditure of federal dollars for the movement of prisoners from Guantanamo to U.S. soil unless the government explains who they are and what risk they pose, among other requirements.
The debate has a local element, too, with Rep. Frank R. Wolf strongly opposing the possibility of settling 17 of the detainees -- Chinese Muslims known as Uighurs -- in a Uighur community in Wolf's district in Fairfax County. Wolf (R) said he recently learned that the release of the Uighurs was imminent, and he has spoken on the House floor a half-dozen times and sent three letters to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. demanding more information about the detainees before they are released.
Wolf, who has been an advocate for Uighurs who have been persecuted by the Chinese government in the past, said the 17 detainees in question were trained in terrorist camps and are affiliated with a terrorist organization bent on targeting the Chinese government.
"A terrorist is a terrorist is a terrorist," Wolf said. "I'm very critical of China, but I don't favor citizens blowing up the Olympics or harming Chinese citizens."
Wolf also opposes the selection of Alexandria's federal courthouse to try some detainees.
But that has put him at odds with another local congressman, Democrat James P. Moran Jr., who entered the fray with an opinion piece published in The Washington Post last Saturday urging Alexandrians to gracefully accept detainees if Obama chooses to send them to Virginia for trial.
"I'm not advocating for this burden," Moran wrote. "If there are more suitable locations in which to try the detainees, it would be a relief to all in this area."
Moran's column could put him at odds with his younger brother, Brian, the gubernatorial candidate, who took no position when asked about the Guantanamo question. But Brian Moran's position is not markedly different from that of other Democrats who back Obama, including Sens. Mark R. Warner and James Webb, who said through staff members that they are aware of community concerns and are waiting to look at the president's proposal before saying more.
Lynda Tran, a spokeswoman for Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, who is also chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said the governor supports the president's decision to close Guantanamo and "has faith" that the administration will do so under "appropriate conditions."
In Washington, meanwhile, House Democrats sought yesterday to neutralize the partisan nature of the debate by approving language, much of it proposed by the GOP's Wolf, aimed at forcing the administration to work more closely with Congress in figuring out where to put the detainees.
Although Wolf wrote much of the language, he said it did not quite go far enough because it did not leave the ultimate decision to the states to accept or reject detainees on their soil.
In the end, Wolf said, the detainees should be tried in rural areas, possibly on military bases, and not in dense urban areas such as Northern Virginia.
"We don't want these terrorists in Virginia," he said.