Senator Sam Brownback held a conference call for a select number of bloggers to talk about Guantanamo, Iran and the president’s approach to the Middle East. The bottom line: the president is behaving again and again, Brownback believes, in a “highly irresponsible” manner.
Brownback explained that he recently returned from a trip to Guantanamo. “I’ve been to a number of prisons and stayed overnight,” he remarked, while hastening to add it was not because of any wrongdoing. “Guantanamo is one of the nicer prison facilities I’ve been in or around.” He expressed exasperation that we are seeking to move detainees from a perfectly secure and humane facility. He listed the accommodations: 6000 calories a day, the freedom to practice their religious beliefs, and excellent medical care. Where, he asked, could you duplicate that?
He listed a number of reasons not to try to move the detainees to other locations. First, while other prisons could hold them, we would, he says, be setting up targets for terrorist activities in or around other locations which are accessible to populated areas. “Those places become a prime target,” he stated.
In addition, the cost to remove, relocate, and build appropriate accommodations for these detainees would run into the hundreds of millions of dollars. For example, the state of the art secured trial rooms with the capacity to broadcast witness testimony from locations around the world would need to be replicated in each of the locations where detainees were sent.
That, Brownback pointed out, would have the effect of slowing down the pace of military tribunals, which the president has complained about and already halted pending the president’s review later in the year.
As for the image of the U.S., Brownback argued that “when you dig into it is because we are detaining these people at all” that has Arab and Europeans upset. The objection would continue if the detainees were then moved, for example, to San Quentin.
I asked him about the concern that the detainees would, if moved, become a source of radical Islamic recruitment and propaganda in the general prison population. He responded, “It is absolutely a concern if they came in contact with a broader prison population [which is the sort of thing the Geneva Convention prohibits] you’ve got fertile ground to spread domestic terrorism.” As a result, Brownback says these detainees would have to be in some sort of solitary confinement, a far less humane situation than the one in which they currently find themselves.
Senator Brownback had at the time of the call not yet read or heard the president’s Cairo speech. But I did ask him about the president’s public criticisms of Israel’s settlement policy and his willingness to consider allowing Iran to have a “peaceful” nuclear program. He replied, after declaring in essence that this is what you must expect from “the most liberal person elected president,” with a sigh of exasperation. He continued, “To harangue Israel which is our best democratic ally in the world in the toughest region of the world. . . is really misguided at best.”
And as for allowing Iran to have a “peaceful nuclear program,” Brownback sounded nothing short of flabbergasted. “They are the leading state sponsor of terrorism!” He deemed it the “height of irresponsibility” to allow Iran to go down this road. It would, he argued, result in “a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.”
Sen. Brownback is of course quite conservative, but the perspective he set forth and the concerns he raised seem to have wide resonance with his Democratic colleagues in the House and Senate who are increasingly troubled by the president’s half-baked Guantanamo plan and his positions on Iran and Israel. (In a separate call today Rep. Kevin McCarthy observed that opposition to the president’s comments on Iran’s potential peaceful nuclear program was the ”one bipartisan concern” at Capitol Hill this week.) There may be basis for a bipartisan consensus — one that takes strong issue with the president’s recent gambits on Guantanamo and the Middle East. Whether these lawmakers then can prevail upon the president to reconsider his positions remains to be seen.