By Susan Crabtree - 03/28/10 01:22 PM EDT
With the long battle to overhaul the nation’s healthcare system behind them, the White House plans to press forward with another nettlesome high-priority task fraught with tensions: congressional negotiations aimed at closing the prison facility at Guantanamo Bay.
Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), the ranking member of the House Homeland Security Committee, said White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel had recently called him to let him know that as soon as the healthcare bill passed, he would turn his attention to shuttering the controversial detention camp and include him in those discussions.
King has forcefully rejected Justice Department plans to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM), the mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in a Manhattan courtroom. Even though Justice announced it would do so in November last year, the White House has since said it was reconsidering.
He also opposes closing Guantanamo Bay and is pushing a bill barring any money from being spent on trying alleged terrorists in civilian rather than military courts.
A week ago, the Wall Street Journal reported an “imminent” deal between a group of senators and the White House on closing the prison and transferring the remaining detainees to the Thomson facility in Illinois. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a point person in the talks, however, this week denied reports that the two sides were close to a deal.
A chief architect of the legislation creating military commissions, Graham supports closing the prison as long as doing so would not harm national security interests. He wants to establish a new national security court systems where most of the remaining Guantanamo Bay detainees could be tried.
In the talks with Emanuel, Graham also has expressed a willingness to extend some habeas corpus rights to prisoners detained on terrorism charges and discussed the need to write a “rule of law” statute that would ensure some logical process for detaining terrorism suspects that would also provide oversight and judicial recourse. He also would like to establish a law on preventive detention, which would allow the White House to hold some detainees indefinitely.
In return for White House support on these priorities, Graham had reportedly agreed to throw his support behind efforts in Congress to secure the funds to transfer the detainees to U.S. soil and equip the Thomson facility to handle the terrorism suspects.
King said he recently talked to Graham, who told him the two issues are not linked in the negotiations anymore.
“He said he was going to proceed on two tracks,” King said, although he didn’t indicate whether that meant Graham had backed away from promising to help the White House fight for the money it needs to close Guantanamo Bay.
Several House Republicans, including King, have voiced frustration about Graham’s willingness to negotiate with the White House to move detainees to U.S. soil.
Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.), the ranking member of the intelligence panel, has called Graham’s discussions with Emanuel “crazy” because they should be left up to the state of Illinois and the Obama administration.
The stakes are high for the White House. If Graham is successful in obtaining some of his goals, there could be a political backlash from some key Democrats.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, in a brief interview Thursday said she disagrees with any attempt to write a new statute allowing indefinite detention.
“The president already has the authority to hold people indefinitely as long as the conflict is still going on – that’s my belief,” she said.
Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) also expressed reservations about writing a law he believes would have serious constitutional consequences and would likely spur years of legal disputes.
Still, there are signs that the negotiations are continuing.
Graham recently reached out to Rep. Dan Manzullo, the Republican who represents the Illinois district where the Thomson facility is located, after Manzullo voiced concern about the direction of the negotiations. The two have since talked and Manzullo said he hopes Graham is no longer telling the White House he’ll help sway members and senators to provide the necessary funds to purchase, equip and run the Thomson facility as a detention center.
The Obama administration sent the delegation a letter last week informing them of their plans to purchase the Thomson prison regardless of whether Congress allows terrorist suspects to be transferred there.
At the very least, the federal Bureau of Prisons intends to use the facility for high-security federal inmates, Assistant Attorney General Ronald Weich said in the letter. Congress must change current law in order to allow Guantanamo inmates to be transferred to the U.S. for any purpose other than trial.
Manzullo would not object to turning the Thomson facility into a federal prison but he has serious reservations about moving terrorism suspects there. In an interview Thursday, Manzullo said the administration only offered $160 million to the state of Illinois to purchase the facility even though the costs to equip and man it for use as a prison for detainees would cost hundreds of millions more not counting the annual budget to staff and run it.
There are only 48 detainees that likely will be transferred to the Thomson facility, Manzullo said, so he doesn’t understand why the country is spending the money to transfer the detainees when state-of-the-art detention facilities already exist at Guantanamo Bay.
“I just can’t imagine spending that kind of money to house 48 detainees,” he said.
Manzullo also said he had a frank conversation with Graham in which he warned him that if he did anything to help move the detainees to Illinois, he would tell voters in South Carolina that Graham should invite them to his state instead.