President Obama’s decision to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility in Cuba, one of his first acts after taking office, is putting fellow Democrats on the political hot seat as word spreads that terrorism suspects and other detainees would be relocated to the U.S. or transferred to domestic prisons.
States and municipalities around the country are saying “not in my backyard,” and Republicans are raising the prospect of relocated detainees putting Americans in danger.
“By releasing trained terrorists into civilian communities in the United States, the administration will, by definition, endanger the American people,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
In several states, legislators have introduced or passed resolutions opposing the transfer of detainees to correctional facilities or military bases in their areas. One Montana town volunteered to take detainees into its empty prison, only to be denounced by the state’s entire congressional delegation.
“Not on my watch,” said Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.).
Northern Virginia is preparing to receive as many as seven Chinese Muslims, who may be the first detainees to be released from Guantanamo for resettlement in the U.S. Officials no longer consider the Chinese Muslims, who are ethnic Uighurs, to be “enemy combatants” but fear they would be mistreated if returned to China.
The GOP effort to spotlight the issue is part of a campaign to sow anxiety about Obama’s stewardship of national security. Shifting their focus from the economic issues that have dominated the Washington debate, Republicans have been trying to portray Obama’s presidency as one that has made the nation less secure.
In a Web video that includes images of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) asks, “Just what is the administration’s overarching plan to take on the terrorist threat and to keep America safe?”
Some fellow Republicans, such as former Rep. Joe Scarborough of Florida, now a conservative talk-show host, viewed that as an inappropriate scare tactic.
“It seems very discordant right now,” said Scarborough on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “The president has just gotten in. We can disagree without being disagreeable right now.”
But Republicans have criticized Obama for relaxing relations with Cuba, releasing details of Bush-era harsh interrogation techniques and shaking hands at a recent summit with Hugo Chavez, the anti-American president of Venezuela.
But no issue so neatly combines national security anxieties with domestic politics as the closing of Guantanamo and the prospect of detainees landing near politicians’ constituents.
“Guantanamo is a huge political problem,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.). “All of us will take some political heat for it.”
Democrats say Republicans are focusing on Guantanamo because the GOP is in a deep political ditch, with few issues to use against a popular president. They say the Republicans are aiming to instill fear, even though detainees would be sent to secure U.S. facilities. (The Uighurs are the only group that the administration is known to be considering for resettlement in the U.S. rather than detention.)
“The Republicans need to get a new set of talking points,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).
Still, some Democrats say the administration needs to do more to develop a plan for the detainees and explain it to the public. “We need the administration to step it up and cover our flanks more,” said a senior Democratic aide who requested anonymity in acknowledging the political problem.
One sign of how sensitive the issue has become: In preparing an emergency spending bill for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, House Democratic leaders chose not to act on an administration request for $80 million to close Guantanamo.
Rep. David R. Obey (D-Wis.), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, wants to postpone action on the Guantanamo request until after the administration provides a clear plan for what will happen to its detainees.
“I’m not going to spend the next two weeks debating something that hasn’t congealed,” Obey said.
Obey today is scheduled to bring before the committee a version of the war spending bill that does not include the $80 million.
The issue arises from Obama’s decision, in an executive order days after his inauguration, to close the facility, which had become a symbol of President George W. Bush’s controversial anti-terrorism policies.
During the presidential campaign, Obama’s GOP opponent, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, also called for closing the detention center. But Obama set a tight deadline -- no later than January 2010 -- before his administration had decided what to do with the roughly 250 detainees who remain there.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, in a Senate hearing last week, was grilled by members of both parties and acknowledged the political problem. “I fully expect to have 535 pieces of legislation before this is over saying, ‘Not in my district, not in my state,’ ” he said.
In Virginia, the Stafford County Board of Supervisors recently passed a resolution opposing the transfer of Guantanamo prisoners to the Marine base at Quantico.
In Missouri, the Legislature passed a resolution urging Congress to keep detainees out of the state. Similar measures, which have no real power, have been introduced or approved in other states including California, where Camp Pendleton is considered a candidate to receive detainees.
Rep. James P. Moran, a Democrat who represents northern Virginia, is facing a particularly anxious population because his district includes one of the few federal courts and detention centers equipped to handle terrorism suspects. Also, the Chinese Muslims may be resettled in the Virginia suburbs, which are home to a number of Uighurs.
“I know there is going to be a lot of political push-back,” Moran said.
He still supports closing Guantanamo, but said the Obama administration had not done enough to coordinate with Congress.
“If they don’t, they make a big mistake and will lose the kind of local political support they need,” Moran said.