Two weeks ago, while most Senate Republicans were focused on the parts of the defense-authorization bill that related to military training and support, several prominent Democrats drafted an amendment to the bill that would have mandated sending terrorist detainees at Guantanamo Bay to the states. The bill never got a vote, but a Republican alternative prohibiting such a move overwhelmingly pass the Senate the following week. Amazingly, every Democrat sponsor of the original amendment ended up voting for the Republican alternative.
The fact that prominent Democrats would so quickly and radically change their minds on a clear-cut issue like this says a lot about the effect that presidential primary politics has on Senate Democrats these days. It’s no coincidence that we’ve spent nearly the entire year on Iraq votes and political investigations of the White House. But the Gitmo vote may be the clearest proof yet that, in key areas, the Democratic agenda is so far out of the mainstream that votes to advance it are hard to defend with the lights on.
The issue in this case couldn’t have been clearer. Do Americans want terrorist detainees living in their communities? I haven’t seen a poll on the issue, but presumably it would look something like the final 94-3 vote on last week’s Gitmo amendment. Of the more than 400 detainees who have so far been released, almost 30 have subsequently taken up arms against the U.S. Kentuckians don’t want these folks living anywhere near their neighborhoods, and neither do I.
Guantanamo always seemed like a good place for terrorist detainees to me. But I was confirmed in the view after visiting the facility last September. A media firestorm had just erupted over revelations about covert CIA prisons overseas, and some people didn’t seem satisfied with the president’s decision to close the prisons and ship the inmates to Guantanamo. They were just as skeptical about how we were treating prisoners there. So I went down to do a little intelligence gathering myself.
Several high-value inmates had arrived a few days before I showed up. They included Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the September 11 attacks; Majid Khan, who plotted to poison U.S. reservoirs; Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, who orchestrated the attack on the U.S.S. Cole; and Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, who played a key role in the 1998 East African Embassy Bombings in Tanzania and Kenya. These aren’t boy scouts. They are killers without borders. And they’re sworn to destroy Americans using any means at their disposal.
Still, military officials are intent on treating even these notorious terrorist inmates well. The day they arrived, Navy Rear Admiral Harry Harris got on a conference call with reporters to assure them that all 14 would receive “the same dietary and cultural amenities” afforded all the other detainees. I wasn’t sure what was covered by “cultural amenities,” but I got the drift when the first detainee I came across was exercising contentedly on a stationary bike. If he wanted variety, there was a Stairmaster too.
Leaving aside the question of whether terrorists should have gym privileges, I left Guantanamo comforted by the fact that so many of them were locked up and that more than 500 miles of ocean separated them from American soil. So it was shocking when a number of Democrats signaled that they wanted to actually mandate sending these inmates to the states. That plan was averted when Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid decided to pull the defense-authorization bill from the floor after a pointless all-night legislative session that one senior Democratic staff member described as a “publicity stunt.” But, just to be sure, Republicans quickly seized an opening the following day to prevent the transfer of terrorists from Gitmo to the U.S.
Since the next piece of legislation on the floor happened to be a bill that under the rules was open to nearly any type of amendment, we offered a series of important votes, including my amendment prohibiting Gitmo detainees from being sent to the states. Some have suggested that most Democrats voted in favor of our amendment because they weren’t aware what it said. This isn’t believable: For starters, my very straightforward amendment was read in its entirety before the Senate voted. The lopsided vote reflects instead an awareness on the part of Democrats that most Americans would be outraged at the thought of deliberately bringing terrorists here — something that would have been inconceivable six years ago.
After the Gitmo vote, Republicans are newly resolved to block any other Democratic proposal that would be abhorrent to most Americans. Convinced that some proposals, like reviving the Fairness Doctrine and peeling away private ballot elections in union drives, are not yet well understood, we will work hard to expose their potential consequences. For now, we can be pleased with at least one potential outcome we blocked last week: terrorist detainees may continue to ride exercise bikes. But they won’t be doing it on American soil.
– Senator Mitch McConnell is Republican leader of the United States Senate.