Time to Support the President and Close the Facility at Guantanamo Bay (Sen. Patrick Leahy)

President Obama said in his campaign and he has repeated since the first days of his presidency that we must keep our Nation safe and secure, but we must do it in ways consistent with our values. Now that is a sentiment I share, and one that I voiced in hearings and statements for years as well. And to President Obama’s credit and to the benefit of the Nation, he has worked since his first day in office to turn these words into action and to make our national security policy and our detainee policy consistent with American laws and American values. And that, in turn, makes us more secure.

I have supported President Obama in these steps, and I will continue to do so. That is why I have voted against amendments to withhold funding to close the Guantanamo detention facility and to prohibit any Guantanamo detainees from being brought to the United States. These amendments undermine the good work the President is doing, and they make us less safe, not safer.

I believe strongly, as all Americans do, that we must take every step we can to prevent terrorism, and we must ensure severe punishments for those who do us harm. As a former prosecutor, I have never shied away from harsh sentences for those who commit atrocious acts. I point out that at times, I’ve requested – and gotten – for people I prosecuted, life sentences where they served without parole.

I believe strongly that we can ensure our safety and security, and bring terrorists to justice, in ways that are consistent with our laws and values. When we have strayed from that approach – when we have tortured people in our custody, or sent people to other countries to be tortured, or held people for years without even giving them the chance to go to court to argue that they were being held in error – we have hurt our national security immeasurably. Our allies have been less willing to help our counter-terrorism efforts. That’s made our military men and women more vulnerable and our country less safe. Terrorists have used our actions as a tool to recruit new members, which means we must fend off more enemies. Worse still, we have lost our ability to respond with moral authority if other countries should mistreat American soldiers or civilians.

Guantanamo has become the symbol of the severe missteps that our country took in recent years. Changing our interrogation policies to ban torture was an essential first step. But only by shutting the Guantanamo facility down and restoring tough but fair procedures can we repair our image in the world. We have to do that if we hope to have a truly strong national security policy. To close Guantanamo, we need our national security and legal experts working hard to come up with a comprehensive plan for its closure, and we should be funding those efforts. By cutting off that funding, we have hamstrung the President’s initiative, no matter what we intended to do. I believe we have made our nation less safe.

Much debate has focused on keeping Guantanamo detainees out of the United States. In this debate, political rhetoric has entirely drowned out reason and reality. Our criminal justice system handles extremely dangerous criminals, and more than a few terrorists, and it does so safely and effectively. We try very dangerous people in our courts and hold very dangerous people in our jails in Vermont and throughout the country. We have the best justice system in the world. We spend billions of dollars on our detention facilities, on our law enforcement, and our justice system. Are we going to say to the world that we’re not good enough to be able to handle criminal cases of this nature? I don’t believe so. We try these dangers people and we hold these dangerous people, in Vermont and throughout our country. We are showing we can do it. And I know; I put some of them there. We do it every day in ways that keep the American people safe and secure, and I have absolute confidence that we can do it for even the most dangerous terrorism suspects.

The Judiciary Committee has held several hearings on the issue of how to best handle detainees, and experts and judges from across the political spectrum have agreed that our courts and our criminal justice system can handle this challenge and indeed has handled it many times already. If after all these billions of dollars, after all the superb men and women we have working in our justice system, an all we spend on our maximum security facilities, are we going to say to the world, America is not strong enough to try the worst of these criminals? When we were hit with one of the worst terrorist attacks in this country, Oklahoma City, did we say we can’t try these people we have no captured? We can’t have them in a courtroom where it isn’t secure? We cannot punish them? Of course not. We went ahead. We followed a system of justice. Having been horribly damaged in Oklahoma City, we followed our system of justice and the rest of the world looked at it and learned from us. Let’s not step back from that. Republican luminaries like General Colin Powell have agreed with this idea. Republican member of the Judiciary Committee, Senator Graham, has said, “The idea that we cannot find a place to securely house 250-plus detainees within the United States is not rational.”

Let’s let reality come in and overwhelm rhetoric. It is time to act on our principles and our constitutional system. Those who we believe to be guilty of heinous crimes should be tried and punished severely. The courts and our prisons are more than up to the task. Those who are innocent should be released. There will be tough cases, and we should give the administration the resources it needs to find ways to dispose of those cases responsibly.

Let us put aside heated and distorted rhetoric and support the President in his efforts to truly make our country safe and strong and a republic worthy of the history and values that have always made America great. I believed that when I was a young lawyer in private practice. And I believed that when I was a prosecutor. I believe that even more today as a United States Senator.

Cross-post from Huffington Post.