By Peter Finn
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 30, 2009
A group of retired senior military officers on Tuesday backed the Obama administration's troubled effort to close the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, saying that those who oppose transferring detainees to the United States for trial are engaging in fear-mongering.
At a forum on Capitol Hill, the retired generals and admirals argued that shuttering the facility in Cuba is in the strategic interest of the United States because it will destroy a potent propaganda and recruitment tool used by terrorists.
But, they said, the president's goal has nearly been overwhelmed by fear and misinformation.
"It appears to us that a campaign to ratchet up fear has taken off," John D. Hutson, a retired Navy rear admiral and former judge advocate general, said ahead of the forum, which was organized by Human Rights First, a New York-based advocacy group.
Added Hutson: "We believe the people going to be prosecuted are not warriors. They are criminals and thugs. . . . We ought to be using the criminal justice system."
The Obama administration has been reviewing the files of the 223 detainees who remain at Guantanamo Bay, but Congress is weighing amendments to legislation that would block transferring any of them to the United States for trial. Various administration officials have hinted that they may not be able to make their own January deadline for the facility's closure.
Hutson was particularly dismissive of the bipartisan opposition on Capitol Hill toward closing the military prison.
"We're trying to encourage more responsible leadership on this issue," he said. "But some don't want to hear it. They seem more comfortable with the politics of fear."
The group of more than two dozen retired officers opposes the use of military commissions to try terrorism suspects, but the administration appears determined to employ the commissions to try some detainees held at Guantanamo Bay.
Congress is finalizing language on a series of reforms to military commissions intended to provide more rights to defendants. All legal proceedings at Guantanamo Bay have been suspended pending the adoption of new rules.
The military officers, who also met with Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., said they were opposed to any form of prolonged detention that would allow the government to continue to hold detainees without charge.
The administration has said that it has cleared 75 detainees for transfer to third countries and could prosecute 65 inmates. But officials are still struggling with how to dispose of about 80 detainees. Obama has said there may be a category of detainees who cannot be prosecuted because of problems with evidence or risks to intelligence methods but who are too dangerous to release.
"We need to drive that number down to zero -- prosecute them or transfer them," said David A. Maddox, a retired Army general.
Maddox dismissed arguments that bringing detainees into the United States was a security risk, noting that U.S. prisons already hold dozens of international terrorists.
"They say they don't want them in my city," he said. "Have they checked who's there now?"