After accompanying Pentagon officials on a tour Wednesday of the Navy brig near Charleston, U.S. Sen. Tim Scott said he remained opposed to plans to transfer terrorists now held at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba to a mainland U.S. prison.
“The only solution is enemy combatants must stay in Guantanamo Bay,” Scott, R-S.C., said during a news conference outside the main gate to the Navy base. “One thing that’s completely clear, without any question, there is no compelling reason to close down Gitmo.”
The Navy brig and the Army Detention Barracks at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., are among the sites being considered for holding terrorist detainees if President Barack Obama succeeds in shutting down the prison at Gitmo.
The Pentagon officials, Alisa Stack and Barry Coble of the Office of Detainee Policy, made no public statements after evaluating the brig.
Obama pledged to close Guantanamo Bay during his first term and has again made it a priority as his presidency enters its final years. However, about half of the 116 remaining terrorist detainees have been deemed too dangerous to release, leading to the Pentagon’s search for a secure prison to house them on U.S. soil.
Transferring the prisoners to the United States, however, would require Congress’ approval, and the plan has run into stiff resistance in South Carolina where it is opposed by Scott, Gov. Nikki Haley, other members of the state’s congressional delegation and state lawmakers.
Opponents fear housing the prisoners on U.S. soil puts Americans at risk if a prisoner escapes or foreign terrorists retaliate by attacking nearby communities or installations, such as the Port of Charleston.
“I had questions in four specific areas,” Scott said. “There weren’t many answers. I asked about the community, the close proximity to schools. They had not taken that into consideration as of yet. I asked about safety. They had not considered that yet. Gitmo is the only institution on Earth designed specifically to hold these enemy combatants.”
Haley and Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback wrote a joint letter to the Department of Defense vowing to use “all possible means” to keep terrorists in Guantanamo Bay and off American soil.
U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., said in a statement that the Obama administration is failing to address the real issue: indefinite detentions.
“I continue to believe that the president’s focus on closing Guantanamo and transferring prisoners to the United States avoids the core issue, which is the indefinite detention of the detainees,” Sanford said.
“On this, the president could act unilaterally but for some reason chooses not to and instead focuses on the geography of detention rather than the issue of indefinite detention itself. I think this push to focus on the ‘where’ rather than the ‘what’ is a mistake,” Sanford said.
State Rep. Chip Limehouse, R-Charleston, said he planned to introduce a resolution when the Legislature reconvenes in January urging Congress to keep Guantanamo Bay open and not to transfer any prisoners to the brig in Hanahan.
“The last thing Charleston needs is the federal government stuffing dangerous terrorists in our lap,” he said.
The Department of Defense alerted members of Congress a few weeks ago about the planned visits, naming the Navy brig and the Leavenworth military prison as being in line to receive the first visits. Civilian sites may also get a look.
The Navy originally built the brig, located at the southern end of the Naval Weapons Station, as a medium-security holding site for military prisoners serving sentences of 10 years or less. But after 9/11, its mission expanded when terror detainee Yaser esam Hamdi, an American citizen, was delivered there in 2002. He’d been captured on a battlefield in Afghanistan. Two other high-profile inmates soon followed, including “dirty bomber” Jose Padilla, and Ali Saleh al-Marri, a Qatari arrested in Illinois as an alleged al-Qaida associate.
Since 2002, when the first detainee arrived, 780 people have been held at Guantanamo Bay, according to an analysis by The New York Times and NPR.