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US Lawmakers Have Mixed Reactions to Obama Orders to Close Guantanamo

By Deborah Tate
Capitol Hill
22 January 2009

Members of the U.S. Congress are divided largely along party lines over President Barack Obama's signing of executive orders to close the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba within a year and ban the harshest interrogation techniques. The matters were discussed during a confirmation hearing for retired U.S. Navy Admiral Dennis Blair, President Obama's nominee to be Director of National Intelligence.

The new Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, praised President Obama for signing the orders to close the Guantanamo facility and end the harshest interrogation practices.

"The president is taking necessary action today," said Dianne Feinstein.

Her comments came at the start of an Intelligence Committee hearing on the nomination of retired Admiral Dennis Blair to be Director of National Intelligence. Blair endorsed the closing of the Guantanamo Bay detention center, calling it "a damaging symbol".

But many Republicans see it differently. Senator Saxby Chambliss of Georgia expressed concern that some detainees would be brought to the United States to stand trial, only to be released on legal technicalities.

"What we are going to have is, all of a sudden, in all likelihood, the release of some of those individuals into our society," said Saxby Chambliss. "We know they are mean, nasty killers."

Blair acknowledged that striking the right balance between protecting Americans, and safeguarding American values and the nation's international reputation would not be easy. He said the Obama administration is considering ways to handle detainees who can neither be released nor returned to their home countries or third-party nations.

On the issue of banning the harshest forms of interrogation practices, Democrats and Republicans were again divided.

Senator Christopher Bond of Missouri, the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, suggested that harsh interrogation techniques used during the Bush administration helped prevent another terrorist attack on the United States after the attacks of September 11, 2001. He urged the Obama administration to think twice about ending some of those practices.

"Benefiting from a government that has kept America free from further attack over the past seven years, they forget that our entire way of life is just a few minutes away from annihilation if terrorists were to succeed in obtaining a weapon of mass destruction," said Christopher Bond.

But Democrat Carl Levin, Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, argued that harsh interrogation techniques are not effective.

"Some prisoners who are subjected to abusive treatment will simply tell us what they think we want to hear, whether true or not, in order to end the use of those abusive techniques against them," said Carl Levin. "So it can produce false information to use abusive techniques."

Admiral Blair - who is expected will be confirmed by the Senate soon - echoed Levin's comments.

"Torture is not moral; it is not legal; it is not effective," said Blair. "The U.S. government will have a clear and consistent standard for the treatment of detainees."

However, Blair refused to call water boarding, an interrogation technique that simulates drowning, torture, saying he did not want to put in legal jeopardy intelligence officers who took part in practices that were authorized at the highest levels.

Levin said he was "troubled" by that response and noted that President Obama's nominee to be Attorney General, Eric Holder, told Congress last week that he does consider water boarding to be torture.

Water boarding was used by the Central Intelligence Agency on three detainees in 2002 and 2003.

Blair outlined a number of areas of attention for the intelligence community - including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the war on terrorism, developments in Iran and North Korea, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as well as global warming and energy security. But he said it is important for the United States to identify opportunities as well as threats.

"The United States must hunt down those fanatic Muslim terrorists who are seeking to do us harm," he said. "At the same time, the intelligence community must also support policy makers who are trying to engage and work with influential Muslim leaders who believe and who are working for a progressive and peaceful future for their religion and for their nation."

On a separate issue, Blair denied accusations from human rights groups that when he was U.S. military commander for the Pacific region 10 years ago, he gave tacit support to the Indonesian military when the United States was trying to prevent abuses in East Timor.

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