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The President’s Speech: Lawmakers React to Obama’s Renewed Transfer Efforts

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Friday, May 24, 2013 at 2:45 PM

Among the policies President Obama announced in his speech: a renewed commitment to transfer detainees to third countries, where possible. To that end, he said he would appoint a new GTMO-focused envoy at the Departments of State and Defense.  (Recall that the State Department office responsible for transfers was closed earlier this year and its primary staffer re-assigned).  The president also formally lifted his self-imposed moratorium on transfers to Yemen.  Going forward, the White House will review transfers to Yemen on a case-by-case basis.

Four Republican Senators—Graham, McCain, Chambliss and Ayotte—sharply criticized the president’s remarks at a press conference immediately after the speech.  According to The Hill, Senator Lindsey Graham told reporters that “the president may be solving a political problem by these transfers in his own mind, but he’s creating a national security problem for our soldiers and our diplomats.”

For his part, Senator John McCain—who reiterated his own interest in closing Guantanamo—nevertheless mentioned the risk of re-engagement by transferred detainees.  “We don’t want them to go back into the fight,” he said during the presser, as described by The Hill’s Jeremy Herb.  “The fact is about 20 percent of them went back into the fight.”  (The Office of the Director of National Intelligence’s March 2013 report found that 16.1% of those transferred had reengaged with Al Qaeda, and that 11.9% are merely suspected of returning to the fight.)

Senator Saxby Chambliss, ranking Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee spoke at the press conference and issued a written statement.  In the latter, he firmly opposed the President’s renewed commitment to GTMO closure:

We knew five years ago that closing Guantanamo was a bad idea and would not work. Yet, today’s speech sends the message to Guantanamo detainees that if they harass the dedicated military personnel there enough, we will give in and send them home, even to Yemen. With the recidivism rate now at 28% and the increased threat from al Qaeda and its affiliates, including in Yemen, GITMO must stay open for business.

That left Senator Kelly Ayotte, who (among other things) spoke about her effort to preclude transfers from GTMO to the United States permanently—and Congress’s agreement only to preclude them for the fiscal year governed by the NDAA.  She also openly doubted Yemen’s ability to ensure the security needed to accept transferred Guantanamo detainees.

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