Senator Tom Cotton, explaining his support for a Guantanamo prisoners should “rot in hell” policy

At a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on policies related to the release of prisoners from Guantanamo Bay, a Pentagon official and an intelligence official testified on how closing the prison is a national security imperative. Yet, their expertise did not seem to matter.

Senators rejected the expertise of military and intelligence agencies preferring to believe that releasing anyone from Guantanamo will endanger Americans and President Barack Obama’s administration is engaged in a conspiracy of mass deception that is putting the United States at great risk.

For example, Senator Lindsey Graham declared, “My goal is to keep people in jail that represent a national security threat to the United States. Common sense would tell us that if you’re still in Guantanamo Bay after all these years you’re probably a high risk.”

A protester in the gallery interrupted Graham and shouted, “Let’s have the rule of law back!” And, “Most of them are innocent. They were already cleared.” While being arrested, he added, “This country is disgusting,” and, “You have betrayed the Constitution. What’s wrong with the American people? What’s wrong with you America? What’s wrong with you?”

Graham chuckled, said, “I think he may get his wish” (whatever that means), and then continued, “Anybody left in Guantanamo today is probably a high risk threat. We wouldn’t have kept them that long. Just common sense tells you if you’re still in jail after all these years you’ve had numerous review boards that you’re probably dangerous in the eyes of the people who say you stay there.”

Principal Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Brian P. McKeon, replied, “Several of the people were cleared or approved for transfer six years ago. We just have not found a place to send them,” which was one of the points the person shouting at Graham had tried to make.

There were 242 prisoners at Guantanamo when Obama was inaugurated in January 2009. A review task force and “subsequent efforts,” according to McKeon, has made the release of 120 prisoners possible. There are 54 prisoners who are still cleared for transfer. Only ten are “being prosecuted or have been sentenced.” There are 58 who are under review by a Periodic Review Board (PRB) process.

Graham, insistent that all those at Guantanamo are evil men who belong there, said, “I don’t think these guys are getting better.” He contended that the PRB process is politically motivated and officials were ignoring past assessments of these prisoners done under President George W. Bush’s administration.

At one point, there were 779 prisoners detained at Guantanamo. The number dropped to 242 prisoners before Obama came into office because the Bush administration released them. They reassessed prisoners and decided these were not the worst of the worst.

“Forty retired military leaders — all retired general officers or flag officers — wrote
the chairman and ranking member of this committee on January 28, 2015,” McKeon stated in his submitted testimony. [PDF] They explained:

…[I]t is hard to overstate how damaging the continued existence of the detention facility at Guantanamo has been and continues to be. It is a critical national security issue…

…[M]any of us have been told on repeated occasions by our friends in countries around the world that the greatest single action the United States can take to fight terrorism is to close Guantanamo…

General Charles C. Krulak, a retired Commandant of the Marine Corps, Major General Michael R. Lehnert, the first commanding general of the joint detention task force at Guantanamo, General Joseph Hoar, the former head of CENTCOM, General David M. Maddox, the former head of the U.S. Army in Europe, and thirty-six other retired senior military leaders all signed on to this letter.

This shows just how outside the mainstream Graham’s views happen to be, however, sadly, they are taken seriously among the politicians in Washington.

Another part of the fringe, Senator Tom Cotton, who was a platoon leader deployed to Baghdad and a captain deployed to Afghanistan, attempted to show that there is no national security imperative to close Guantanamo. The military and intelligence establishment are all wrong in their assessments.

“How many recidivists are there at Guantanamo Bay?” Cotton asked.

“I’m not sure I follow the question,” McKeon responded.

Cotton reformulated the question. “How many at Guantanamo Bay are engaging in terrorism or anti-American incitement?”

“They’re pretty locked down,” McKeon said.

“None, because they’re detained,” Cotton interrupted. “Because they only engage in that kind of recidivism overseas.”

Cotton’s clever gotcha came after these statistics had been shared and addressed by McKeon and National Counterterrorism Center Director Nicholas J. Rasmussen, who was also there to represent the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI).

…107 or 17.3% of the 620 detainees who had been transferred from Guantanamo had been confirmed of reengagement in terrorist or insurgent activities as of September 2014, and the IC assessed that an additional 77 former detainees, or 12.4%, were suspected of reengagement. Of the 88 transfers that occurred since the interagency process the DNI participates in was implemented in 2009, 6 or 6.8% were confirmed of reengagement in terrorist or insurgent activities, and 1 or 1.1% was suspected…

When considering systematic torture and abuse, along with harsh confinement conditions, these numbers are pretty low. But lawmaker-warrior Tom Cotton was not to be pacified.

“Now, let’s talk about the propaganda value? How many detainees were at Guantanamo Bay on September 11, 2001?”

“How many were there on October 2000 when al Qaeda bombed the USS Cole?”

What about 1998 when they bombed our embassies? In 1993, when they bombed the World Trade Center? Or, 1979, when they took over our embassy?

Everyone at the committee hearing just sat there as the mania escalated, never bothering to address the fact that he views all terrorists as a monolith inspired by radical Islam.

“Islamic terrorists don’t need an excuse to attack the United States. They don’t attack us for what we do. They attack us for who we are,” Cotton declared. “It is not a security decision. It is a political decision based on a promise the president made on his campaign. To say that it is a security decision based on propaganda value that our enemies get from it is a pretext to justify a political decision.”

“In my opinion, the only problem with Guantanamo Bay is there are too many empty beds and cells there right now. We should be sending more terrorists there for further interrogation to keep this country safe. As far as I’m concerned, every last one of them can rot in hell. But, as long as they don’t do that, they can rot in Guantanamo Bay.”

Everyone at the hearing sat there silent. No nervous laughter. No cries from protesters. This is how many US politicians really feel. They do not care if Guantanamo prisoners are having their due process rights violated. They do not care if they were drugged, put in stress positions, beaten, deprived of medical care, sexually tormented by military personnel and subject to religious and cultural abuse, such as the desecration of the Quran. And Cotton just happened to say what most senators would only say in the privacy of their offices.

Almost no senators pushed back against the overwhelming contempt shown toward efforts to release prisoners from Guantanamo. Democratic Senator Joe Manchin admitted he once felt the way Cotton does and outrageously suggested it was the guards who people need to be worried about because they suffer abuse.

“If you’re child was in the military and a guard in that detail, I would not ask anybody’s children to be in that position guarding in that type of condition there because I’ve seen the abuse that the prisoners have on our guards. I couldn’t believe it,” Manchin said, as he recounted visiting Guantanamo. “I’d like to see a few of them in a United States hardened prison to see if they change their attitude. I know we could do a little different job here than they’re doing over there.”

Democratic Senator Tim Kaine was about the only one who inserted some necessary reason into the conversations, as he rejected the idea that the talk about risks posed by keeping Guantanamo open was “just a political argument that the president has cooked up.” He said that ignored a “awful lot of facts and an awful lot of opinions by very talented national security individuals.”

The CIA Open Source Center study released in January, according to Kaine, indicates that there have been 30 occasions since 2010 where Al Qaeda affiliates have referenced Guantanamo “as justification for recruitment and violent jihad.” Director of National Intelligence James Clapper sent a note to the intelligence committee in November 2013 arguing that closing Guantanamo would “deny al Qaeda leaders of the ability to use the alleged ongoing mistreatment of detainees to further their global jihadist narrative.” Clapper cited al Qaeda’s magazine, Inspire.

“The propaganda value of Guantanamo is not something that the president cooked up out of thin air. It’s something that our security professionals are telling us and they’re telling us loud and clear,” Kaine stated.

Human rights should be enough for all politicians to support closing Guantanamo and release prisoners. Spending millions on keeping human beings locked up forever should persuade decision makers something is wrong. But, if none of that is going to work, denying militant groups a recruitment tool ought to be enough to convince politicians that they are wrong. The expertise of the top officials in the national security state should convince politicians that they are mistaken.

Unfortunately, many US senators are so filled with prejudice that they would rather see every prisoner die tomorrow than atone for the crimes and consider the mistakes committed by the US government. The detention of hundreds of innocent people is not wrong to them, and they would still be willing to entertain a debate about keeping what was used as a torture lab open for the future detention of terrorism suspects.

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."