Liz Cheney and Debra Burlingame (board members of Keep America Safe), Eileen Trotta (the sister of Officer Louis Pepe, a former federal prison guard who was stabbed in the eye by an al-Qaeda terrorist 10 months before 9/11), and former federal prosecutor Andy McCarthy held a conference call to discuss the decision to move Guantanamo detainees to the Thomson Correctional Center in Illinois. Cheney was blunt, declaring that this was further evidence that the Obama administration was “dedicated to turning the clock back” to a failed pre-9/11 approach, which treated terrorism as a criminal-justice matter. Once here, she explained, the detainees will have “all the rights of U.S. citizens” and the opportunity to seek release onto U.S. soil. They will also have the freedom to plan and plot other terrorist activities, as well as to “radicalize the prison population.” She noted that the Obama team has “no stomach” for keeping in place restrictions on terrorists once they’re in U.S. facilities, pointing to the case of shoe bomber Richard Reid, who after a hunger strike and legal complaint got the restrictions on mail, media access, etc. lifted. (Burlingame later added that it was discovered that the 1993 World Trade Center bombers managed to send some 90 letters to terrorist networks, which used them as prime recruiting tools.)
I asked Cheney what the administration hoped to gain by this, since terrorists would still have to be indefinitely detained and we were simply going to have to re-create the Guantanamo facility on U.S. soil. She confessed that it was “impossible to get inside their heads,” but she emphasized that each and every action of the president should be assessed as to whether it would make Americans safer. She said there is simply “no way to argue” that this makes us safer. She deemed the argument that this will create jobs “disgraceful,” reminding those on the call that there was an overpopulation problem in U.S. prisons and that other prisoners could be moved and the Illinois facility enhanced if they wanted to boost local jobs. She reiterated that Guantanamo is both a “safe and just facility” and that there is “no legitimate justification” for moving them.
In response to a similar query from USA Today as to whether this was an administration effort to eliminate Guantanamo as a “recruiting tool,” Cheney said that the media should “challenge them to show evidence” that it was Guantanamo that was responsible for terror recruitment. Terrorists “are not attacking America because of the way they are detained” but, she explained, because of their hateful Islamic fundamentalist ideology. McCarthy added, “A pretext is not a cause.” It is Islamic ideology and signs of American weakness that, he noted, are what spur recruitment, according to terrorists (including the 1993 bombers) who have been debriefed.
I asked McCarthy what Congress could do. Congress has “remedies,” he noted, including the power to decline funding. Congress is also the “master of federal jurisdiction” and can use that power, for example in the KSM trial, to declare U.S. courts off-limits to enemy combatants. It is, he argues, incumbent on Congress to use “the power of the purse … but also to say in resolutions that this is not the way we want to go.”
This is a preview of the debate that will take place, both in Congress and in the 2010 elections. The question remains: do we want to move terrorists to U.S. soil and treat them as U.S. citizens, with all the attendant rights and security risks? The American people overwhelmingly have rejected this idea. But the Obami say they know better. We’ll see who wins the argument.