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Sen. Graham: U.S. is 'punting' on national security issues

Guantanamo Bay is located on the southeastern tip of Cuba, an arid, sun-parched stretch of land. It's an unusual place, a collection of prison camps, suburban-style neighborhoods and military complexes where 5,500 military personnel and contractors live alongside "banana rats," iguanas and legions of land crabs.

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By Peter Finn
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 20, 2010; 6:57 PM

Debate on critical national security issues such as the interrogation of terrorism suspects and the future of Guantanamo Bay has ground to a halt, according to Sen. Lindsey O. Graham, who said Monday that he fears that only another terrorist attack will revive efforts to enact a sustainable legal framework to fight terrorism.

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"We just keep punting on the hard positions surrounding Guantanamo and the law of war on terror in general," said Graham (S.C.), a leading Republican voice on the legal aspects of combating terrorism. "Congress has been AWOL. Democrats are scared to death to talk about this. And most Republicans just demagogue it."

Graham, who has expressed a willingness to work with the Obama administration, said he is afraid that it will take another attack "before we get serious about this stuff." He said he worries that Congress would then overreact in ways that would undermine the country's civil liberties.

In a speech at the American Enterprise Institute and in remarks to reporters afterward, the senator bemoaned what he said is a dwindling set of options the United States has when a high-value terrorism suspect is captured abroad.

"We have basically put ourselves out of the detention business and out of the interrogation business because the parties can't find a way forward," he said.

Graham said U.S. agents need a set of "good, sound, firm" interrogation techniques that allow for more robust questioning than is permitted by the Army's field manual, the standard the Obama administration places on interagency interrogation teams.

But Graham also condemned waterboarding, a technique used to simulate drowning.

"There has to be something other than waterboarding; there has to be some middle ground," he said. "Is it a violation of the Geneva Conventions? Yes. Ask any military lawyer if waterboarding violates the articles written to protect enemy prisoners from abuse."

Noting that no detainee has been sent to the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for several years, Graham also said the United States lacks a detention center at which to question terrorism suspects.

"We're a nation without a prison in a war," he said. "What happens if we capture someone in Somalia tomorrow, or Yemen tomorrow, that's a high-value target? Where do you put them, and what do you do with them? Do we have to use a law enforcement model? Do we have to take them to federal court?"

The Obama administration has said it remains committed to closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay. But officials have experienced setbacks in their attempts to prosecute detainees in civilian and military courts.

Graham argued that it would be a mistake to always prosecute future captives in civilian courts, because it would afford them rights that would make it harder for authorities to gather intelligence. He said the country needs a hybrid approach that would allow the use of federal courts, military commissions and indefinite detention under the laws of war to fight an enemy that has no flag or state.

The senator also reiterated his opposition to putting Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the self-proclaimed mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, on trial in federal court, arguing that doing so would undermine the notion that the assaults on New York and Washington were acts of war.

"I will do everything in my power to ensure that Khalid Sheik Mohammed never sees the inside of a federal courtroom," he said.

Graham said he continues to hope that a new Congress will work with the administration to create the legal architecture to resolve a host of issues, including exceptions to Miranda warnings in national security cases, a system of prolonged detention that would also allow the closure of Guantanamo Bay, and clear guidelines for the courts, which will review such detentions.

Still, Graham told reporters that he is not optimistic.

"The politics now - this is radioactive," he said.

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