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Senate panel hears frustrations over Biden’s failure to close military prison at Guantánamo

Marine Brig. Gen. John G. Baker, the chief defense council for military commissions; retired U.S. Marine Gen. Michael R. Lehnert; attorney Katya Jestin; 9/11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows co-founder Colleen Kelly; National Security Institute Executive Director Jamil Jaffer; and Charles Stimson of the Meese Center for Legal and Judicial Studies at the Heritage Foundation testify Tuesday during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on potentially closing the U.S. detention camp at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
Marine Brig. Gen. John G. Baker, the chief defense council for military commissions; retired U.S. Marine Gen. Michael R. Lehnert; attorney Katya Jestin; 9/11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows co-founder Colleen Kelly; National Security Institute Executive Director Jamil Jaffer; and Charles Stimson of the Meese Center for Legal and Judicial Studies at the Heritage Foundation testify Tuesday during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on potentially closing the U.S. detention camp at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Democrats, a retired military commander, attorneys and an association of 9/11 victims’ relatives on Tuesday aired their frustration about stalled administration efforts to close the U.S. military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and bring those charged in the terrorist attacks to trial.

Lawmakers and witnesses spoke during the first Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the issue in eight years. Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), the panel’s chairman, expressed his dismay that “this hearing today is even necessary” and that the Biden administration has been relatively unresponsive to an issue that was once a passion project of Biden’s former boss, President Barack Obama.

“I am disappointed,” Durbin told the committee. “Disappointed that the president and the attorney general have yet to respond to my letters. And I’m disappointed the administration declined to send a witness to testify at today’s hearing on how they’re working to close Guantánamo.”

Guantánamo, which has held 780 detainees since it opened, will soon enter its 20th year, now with 39 detainees remaining.

20 years after 9/11, Biden faces uncertain path to closing Guantánamo Bay

President Biden, like former presidents George W. Bush and Obama, has signaled his desire to close the prison but said little about that effort over the past year, and has transferred just one detainee to another country, though 27 of the remaining 39 prisoners have not been charged, and 13 have been cleared for transfer.

“President Biden transferred his first detainee in July,” said Durbin. “But at that pace — one detainee every 10 months — there will be dozens of detainees at Guantánamo even if President Biden is elected to a second term.”

The White House declined to comment on the administration’s absence at the hearing, but press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Tuesday that Biden “absolutely remains committed to shutting down Guantánamo Bay, something he has stated many times in the past as vice president, running for office, et cetera.”

Awareness of the prison has fallen significantly in American public consciousness since it first drew international condemnation as a symbol of post-9/11 excess: a facility operating outside the bounds of U.S. law, where hundreds of terrorism suspects captured abroad were held without charge or due process, some after enduring torture.

Republican lawmakers pointed to the Biden administration’s absence from the hearing to suggest that it too recognized the impossibility of closing the prison.

“I find it stunning that not one member of the administration would come before this committee to talk about closing Gitmo,” said Sen. Lindsay O. Graham (R-S.C.).

Supporters warn against sending former Guantánamo inmate, now detained in Persian Gulf, home to Russia

“No one from the administration has come to defend the president’s plan to close Guantánamo, and I’m not sure that there is a plan,” said Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa.)

The hearing comes as Congress scrambles to finalize its annual defense authorization bill this week. The legislation hammered out by House and Senate negotiators is mostly an extension of past policies regarding Guantánamo, prohibiting the use of funds to transfer detainees to the United States and a set of high-risk countries, including Libya, Somalia, Syria and Yemen. It also prevents funds from being used to build new facilities or modify existing ones at Guantánamo Bay, or close or otherwise cede control of the prison.

Durbin had sought to include an amendment that would order the closure of the facility, but it was not included in the final legislation, which the House is expected to approve on Tuesday night and the Senate is then expected to take up without additional amendments.

Meanwhile, the military commission trial for the five Guantánamo detainees accused of plotting the 9/11 attacks has yet to begin, and no trial date has been set as the process has been slowed by seemingly endless pretrial battles over evidence and government actions, including the treatment of the accused when they were held at secret CIA prisons.

“At the heart of the commissions’ problems is their original sin, torture,” said John G. Baker, the Marine Corps brigadier general who serves as chief defense counsel for the military commissions. “The United States chose to secretly detain and torture the men it now seeks to punish.”

“We are further from trial today than we were when I started” as chief defense counsel in 2015, he added.

“Some of you might be thinking, ‘My constituents don’t ever ask me about Guantánamo,’ and you’d be correct,” Michael R. Lehnert, the now-retired Marine Corps major general who led the task force that set up Guantánamo in 2002, told the panel of lawmakers.

“Most of America has forgotten about Guantánamo. But hear me when I tell you that our enemies have not.”

Tyler Pager contributed to this report.

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