WASHINGTON — A month after failing to convince his House colleagues to close the military commission at Guantánamo Bay, U.S. Rep. Adam Smith on Wednesday renewed his arguments before a Senate committee to shutter the prison he calls a moral blot and a financial folly.
In a brief but forceful testimony before a Senate Judiciary subcommittee, the Bellevue Democrat said terrorism suspects can be tried safely, more quickly and for far less money in U.S. civilian courts. Smith rejected as baseless concerns it would entitle suspects to greater constitutional rights and make it more difficult get convictions.
Smith was one of seven witnesses invited to speak about the national security, fiscal and human-rights implications of shuttering Guantánamo. Others included retired Army Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton, who called closing the prison a moral and legal imperative, and Frank Gaffney, president of the conservative Center for Security Policy, who argued Guantánamo was the most secure place to hold and interrogate enemy combatants.
President Obama has renewed efforts to deliver on his five-year-old pledge to close the detention center. But the fiscal 2014 defense policy bill passed by House Republicans in June forbids it. That bill is on a clashing path with the version approved by the Senate Armed Services Committee, which would give the Pentagon much more leeway to transfer Guantánamo inmates to other prisons and to other countries.
Smith, the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee and a former city of Seattle prosecutor, said widespread misconceptions may be preventing sensible action on Guantánamo.
He said he found it “stupefying … the degree to which people seem unaware of the fact that we already hold hundreds of terrorists in United States supermax prisons,” including Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, who planned the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, and Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, the blind Egyptian Islamic fundamentalist serving a life sentence for plotting to bomb New York City landmarks .
“There is literally no benefit to keeping Guantánamo Bay open,” Smith said.
According to Department of Defense estimates released by Smith’s office, taxpayers have spent some $4.7 billion on Guantánamo since the Bush administration opened what was intended to be temporary military tribunals in 2002. The costs for the current fiscal year is more than $400 million for facility repairs and upkeep as well as personnel costs for the detention center and for operating the military commission.
Guantánamo currently has 166 detainees. Half of them have been deemed to pose low risk and have been cleared for transfer. At least 69 inmates are believed to be on a hunger strike to protest their indefinite detention. Of the 779 terrorism suspects brought to Guantánamo over the years, seven have been convicted.
Since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, federal prosecutors have indicted and convicted several hundred people on terrorism-related charges. At least 67 of those convicted were terrorists captured overseas.
Smith attached an amendment to the fiscal 2014 House defense-authorization bill to give the Pentagon new authority to close Guantánamo, strip its operating funding after Dec. 31, 2014 and lift the ban on transferring inmates to U.S. soil.
The amendment failed by a vote of 174-249.