Detainee transfers from the Guantánamo Bay prison have resulted in the deaths of Americans, a Defense Department official said Wednesday.
“What I can tell you is, unfortunately, there have been Americans that have died because of Gitmo detainees,” Paul Lewis, the Pentagon’s special envoy for Guantánamo closure, told the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
He did not provide any other details on the deaths and told the committee he could discuss the issue more in a classified setting.
An anonymous administration official told The Associated Press that Lewis was referring to an incident involving an Afghan detainee released from Guantánamo by former President George W. Bush.
But the revelation is likely to harden opposition in Congress to President Obama’s proposal to close Guantánamo. Republicans declared that plan dead on arrival when it was submitted in February, rejecting the idea of moving the prisoners to the United States.
Lewis said the administration still believes it’s in the interest of national security to close the prison in Cuba.
“When anybody dies, it’s a tragedy, and we don’t want anybody to die because we transfer detainees,” he said. “However, it’s the best judgment and the considered judgment of this administration and the previous administration that the risk of keeping Gitmo open is outweighed — that we should close Gitmo.”
Lewis’s comments prompted a sharp rebuke from Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), who said he was “disgusted.”
“As far as I’m concerned, if one child is saved because she would have been blown up by someone who’s been released, it’s better to keep all 90 of those people in Gitmo,” he said.
“And this idea that the people of the world, oh they’re so upset with us, that it’s a recruiting vehicle, that we’ve kept terrorists who murder innocent people in Gitmo, well, you know what? I think the bigger recruiting tool today is when our government, especially at this administration, is perceived as being weak.”
There are 91 detainees left at Guantánamo, with 36 of them cleared for transfer.
The recidivism rate of former detainees has been a contentious issue issue between the administration and Republican lawmakers.
Republicans point to a 30 percent figure that represents detainees released by Presidents George W. Bush and Obama who are confirmed or suspected of re-engaging in terrorism.
Administration officials, meanwhile, highlight a 4.9 percent figure that represents the number of detainees released by Obama confirmed to be re-engaging in terrorism. Another 8 percent released by Obama are suspected of re-engaging.
Sen. Kelly AyotteKelly AyotteBottom Line How Gorsuch's confirmation shapes the next Supreme Court battle THE MEMO: Trump set to notch needed win with Gorsuch MORE (R-N.H.), who has been a vocal opponent of Obama’s Gitmo plan, said Lewis’s admission shows why the facility shouldn’t be closed.
“The Obama administration’s confirmation today that former Guantanamo detainees have killed Americans is the single most important reason why the president should cease his misguided efforts to close the facility and release dangerous terrorists,” Ayotte said in a written statement.
“The administration’s Guantanamo policies have been deeply irresponsible and dangerous, and today’s testimony only underscores that fact.”
—Updated at 7:48 p.m.