By Susan Crabtree - 02/25/10 05:46 PM EST
Talks between Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and the White House on closing the Guantanamo Bay military prison in Cuba are angering House Republicans who oppose any transfer of detainees to U.S. soil.
Graham, who supports closing the prison as long as doing so does not compromise national security, earlier this week acknowledged that he has held a series of meetings and had phone calls with White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel over the last several weeks over the issue.
He’s also 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.
The Graham-Emanuel talks have unnerved Rep. Pete Hoekstra (Mich.), the senior Republican on the House intelligence committee.
“I think it’s crazy to be negotiating with the White House on this,” said Hoekstra, a vocal critic of transferring detainees to U.S. soil.
He and other House Republicans are worried that Graham will agree to throw his political support behind Obama’s plans to move detainees to a prison facility in Thomson, Ill., in return for forging a deal with the White House on a new national security court system.
“Lindsey didn’t want the detainees in South Carolina when it was under consideration,” Hoekstra noted. “This is a state and local decision, and a decision about whether they should go to Illinois ought to be left to the people of Illinois.”
Rep. Don Manzullo (R), who represents the district where the Thomson facility is located, was equally adamant.
“If Lindsey Graham is involved in talks about moving detainees to Illinois, I hope he would talk to me first,” he said.
As the chief architect of 2006 and 2009 legislation creating military commissions, Graham’s views could carry significant political weight.
The senior senator from South Carolina generally supports prosecuting alleged terrorists in military rather than civilian courts. He also would like to see the Obama administration institute a “preventive detention” system that would establish a legal basis for the country to hold terrorism suspects who pose a high-risk threat but cannot be tried.
Graham spokesman Kevin Bishop stressed that his boss, along with other Republicans such as President Bush, has long favored closing Guantanamo Bay as long as it is done in a way that puts national security first and honors the rule of law. He did not comment on the criticism from Hoekstra and others.
Graham will speak with Manzullo on Thursday afternoon, Bishop said.
Graham began discussions with the White House about closing Guantanamo last year but complained that the talks stalled and broke off last fall when it became clear that the White House and the Justice Department wanted to try high-profile detainees such as Khalid Shiekh Mohammed and other 9/11 terrorist suspects in New York federal court.
He then pursued a bill that would effectively force the Sept. 11 suspects into military courts by barring civilian trials. The proposal failed on a 54-45 vote in November, but since the Christmas Day bombing attempt and the intense criticism over the decision to charge suspect Umar Abdulmutallab in civilian court, Graham has vowed to keep pushing a similar measure.
That bill, which would prohibit any funds from being spent to try 9/11 suspects in federal courts, has picked up the support of Sens. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) and could attract other Democrats, such as Sen. Jim Webb (Va.), who opposes trying detainees in civilian court in his home state.
Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), a lead sponsor of a House version of the bill barring funds from being spent to try detainees in federal court, said he is wary of any effort to forge a compromise with the White House that would tie an agreement not to try detainees in federal court to support for shuttering Guantanamo Bay and moving the remaining inmates to U.S. soil.
“I’d have to see the exact details of what he’s trying to do … but I don’t think I would agree with that,” Wolf said. “I’ve disagreed with this administration’s entire approach to Gitmo and how it has handled detainees. My issue is transparency. The administration has been too secretive about its plans.”
In mid-December, Graham expressed deep concerns about the Obama administration’s decision to try some detainees in civilian courts and release dozens of others amid concerns about increased rates of recidivism.
“… I fear the administration has lost its bearings in an effort to close Guantanamo as quickly as possible,” he said at the time.
Graham continued to agree that closing Guantanamo Bay would help the country’s national image abroad and help prevent terrorists from using it as a recruiting tool, but at the time said he found himself increasingly at odds with the administration’s approach.
“I hope the administration hits the pause button on closing Guantanamo and works with Congress to develop a comprehensive strategy to keep dangerous terrorists off the battlefield,” he said.
The tide turned sharply against the administration’s detainee decisions in the wake of the Christmas Day bombing attempt. Acknowledging the new atmosphere, Emanuel has warned administration officials that losing Graham, a respected voice on terrorism issues, would only harm future intelligence and national security negotiations with Capitol Hill.