Lawmakers return from Gitmo

Five senators and 16 House members returned yesterday from separate weekend visits to the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where more than 500 suspected Islamic terrorists are being held, agreeing that no prisoners are being mistreated but still divided on whether it should be closed.

“It was really an eye-opening experience,” Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) told The Hill. “We found a well-run and well-organized camp. Everything we heard previously was negative, but what we saw was much different from what we had heard and read about.”

Nelson, a member of the Armed Services Committee who toured the camp on Sunday with Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), said he concluded that, “while there may have been some inappropriate [interrogation] efforts in the past, they are not ongoing, and closing the prison is not one of the things we should pursue.”

Two House Democrats who were among 16 members of the House Armed Services Committee who toured the prison in sweltering heat on Saturday, Reps. Ellen Tauscher (D-Calif.) and Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), agreed that prisoners are no being mistreated, but said charges of abuse at the prison still harms America’s image at home and abroad.

Although Tauscher told the Associated Press that Guantanamo “has become a lightning rod” for anti-American feeling, she said, “The Guantanamo we saw today is not the Guantanamo we heard about a few years ago.” 

And  while Jackson Lee said she still believes the $110 million facility, which costs $95 million a year to operate, should be closed, she added, “What we’ve seen here is evidence that we’ve made progress.”

However, Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), said charges that U.S. interrogators abused and tortured prisoners were nothing more than “wild accusations” designed to hurt the United States. He also questioned whether the criteria for releasing a detainee is too liberal, saying that some who have been released have returned to fight in Iraq.

And Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.), who toured the prison Sunday with Sens. Mike Crapo (R-Wyo.) and Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), but separately from Nelson and Wyden, said in a floor speech yesterday that prisoners were being well-treated.

“Throughout the entire detention camp, terrorists were given clothes and bedding. They are given Muslim prayer rugs and Korans. There are arrows everywhere pointing them to Mecca. We even witnessed a prayer call announcing to the terrorists that it was time for them to turn to Mecca and pray.”

Both Bunning and Nelson pointed out that a part of the prison called Camp Xray, scene of the alleged abuses reported in the media, has been closed since 2002 and new facilities have been and are being built.

“They have come a long way from concrete slabs surrounded by chain-link fencing,” he said. “But the new camps are significantly better. They offer the terrorists more privacy, space and protection from the weather. They offer the terrorists areas for recreation. Some even have air conditioning and semi-private showers.”

He added, “Of course the detainees are not living in luxury. But these are dangerous killers we are talking about. … But as long as they are a danger to Americans, we must continue to hold them and gather information.”

In an obvious reference to Sen. Dick Durbin’s (D-Ill.) widely criticized comments about Guantanamo, Bunning said the prisoners’ treatment “is a far cry from the repressive regimes that critics of Guantanamo have compared out military to. Did the Nazis respect the Jewish faith? Did Stalin and Pol Pot practice religious tolerance? Absolutely not.”

The lawmakers were given a classified briefing by base commanders, and accompanied by military escorts throughout their visit. 

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