WASHINGTON -- If Guantanamo's detention facilities are going to close soon, it was hard to tell from watching a Senate Judiciary committee hearing on Wednesday.
Chaired by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the hearing showcased deep partisan divisions over the fate of the military-run facilities at Naval Station Guantanamo currently holding 166 detainees. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.) used President Barack Obama's stated desire to close the detention facilities to paint the administration as weak on terror.
"President Obama tells us the war on terror is over, that al Qaeda has been decimated and that we can now take a holiday from the long, difficult task of combating radical Islamic terrorism," said Cruz. "Today the administration's position seems to be to continue apologizing for the existence of Guantanamo, to continue apologizing for our detaining terrorists and standing up to defend ourselves, but to do nothing affirmatively to address the problem."
Pompeo, a West Point and Harvard Law School graduate who has visited Guantanamo, said there are no human rights violations occurring at Guantanamo and called the ongoing hunger strikes a "political stunt" that should not be rewarded.
"The president seems to be more concerned with mollifying the grievances of al Qaeda than defending against the real dangers these enemy combatants pose to the American people," said Pompeo, who testified at the hearing.
While the vast majority of the panelists supported the closure of Guantanamo, witness Frank Gaffney of the conservative Center for Security Policy was firmly opposed. Gaffney, who has argued that the Muslim Brotherhood was infiltrating the Conservative Political Action Conference, said Guantanamo prisoners could recruit other prisoners if held in the federal prison system. "We are fighting, I would suggest, against people who adhere to a doctrine they call Sharia," Gaffney said.
Obama pledged to close Guantanamo's detention facilities during the 2008 campaign and signed an executive order mandating that the shutdown within his first few days in office, but efforts to close them have been stymied by Congress. Obama has recently said he'd renew his efforts to close Guantanamo and has ordered the Pentagon to find a location in the United States to hold military commissions.
But the Obama administration, said Durbin, needs to put in more effort. "I'll be first to acknowledge that the administration could be doing more to close Guantanamo," he said.
Other Democrats at the hearing also pushed for Guantanamo to close, emphasizing the high annual cost of imprisoning a detainee. "I think the waste has to end," said Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.).
"There is literally no benefit to keeping Guantanamo Bay open," added Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.).
The hearing comes in the midst of a months-long hunger strike in Guantanamo, which began early this year. As of Wednesday morning, military officials said they were tracking 69 detainees who are striking, and 45 who are on the force-feeding, or "enteral feed," list.
Under current rules, detainees in Guantanamo are considered non-compliant if they are on a hunger strike, and not allowed to live in a communal setting. Communal living stopped after a raid in April on Guantanamo's Camp Six, but resumed earlier this month.
Before the hearing, seven religious leaders broke a 24-hour fast organized to call attention to the situation in Guantanamo. The fast, organized by the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, started at noon Tuesday and continued until just hours before the hearing.
"We the American people are much better than the detention center which has come to symbolize us all," said Maggie Siddiqi of the Islamic Society of North America, who was fasting.
Sandra Sorensen, of the United Church of Christ, said that if force-feeding continues "each of us will lose a part of our humanity." "The practice of torture is something to which we should never become well-adjusted," she said.
In addition, the continued detention of detainees without charges "wounds the moral reputation of our nation," said Virginia Farris of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. "Detainees have a right to a just and fair trial held in a timely manner."