Cotton: Terrorists Remaining at Gitmo Are ‘Hardest of the Hardcore’

Americans would be ‘hesitant’ to see prisoners released if they knew reasons for detention

Tom Cotton
Tom Cotton / AP

Sen. Tom Cotton (R., Ark.) said Wednesday that the American people and U.S. allies would be "hesitant" to see prisoners released from Guantanamo Bay if they knew all the facts regarding their detention.

Cotton, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told reporters that the Obama administration is preparing to release the "most dangerous" prisoners from the military prison at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, Cuba, despite intelligence showing that a large number of ex-detainees have either returned to terrorist activities or are suspected of doing so.

"They’re releasing some pretty bad guys, and I suspect … the American people and frankly a lot of our allies would be a little bit hesitant to see them released and see them walking into their country if they knew all the facts supporting the detention of the people at Guantanamo right now," Cotton told journalists Wednesday morning during an event at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C.

President Obama has accelerated efforts to close the detention facility before the end of his administration, whittling the prison population down to 80 after transferring a slew of detainees to foreign countries. Cotton described the remaining prisoners as the "most dangers ones." Some have been cleared for release and Obama has proposed moving others to stateside prisons.

"The people left at Guantanamo are the hardest of the hardcore, and they’re getting down to five or six dozen who I don’t think even the administration would ever see released to any country," Cotton said.

Republicans have taken steps to thwart Obama’s rush to close Guantanamo using annual defense legislation. Cotton along with Sen. David Perdue (R., Ga.) introduced an amendment to the fiscal year 2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) last week that would require the Director of National Intelligence to complete a declassification review of intelligence reports related to past terrorist activities of former Guantanamo detainees and publicly release any information on behavior of ex-detainees related to terrorism.

"I think it’s important that the American people and our allies recognize the histories of some of these detainees, not just the ones we have now but the ones we’ve released in the past," Cotton said.

The amendment is one of several Guantanamo-related provisions offered to the NDAA, which is on the Senate floor for debate this week. Cotton said he hopes to have a vote on the amendment or include it in the legislation as part of a package.

Others have likewise sought to boost transparency of Guantanamo prisoner transfers. On Tuesday, Sen. Ron Johnson (R., Wis.) introduced an amendment to the NDAA that would mandate that the defense secretary give Congress unclassified notice of plans to transfer detainees 30 days before the transfers occur. The notice would make public specific information about detainees designated for transfer, including their countries of origin and destination.

The administration currently must inform Congress of imminent transfers, but the notices are classified.

Republicans critical of Obama’s efforts to close Guantanamo have pointed to a report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence indicating that about 18 percent of former detainees are confirmed to have resumed terrorist activities and 13 percent are suspected of returning to terrorism. Many have warned of the national security implications of releasing prisoners to foreign countries that may not be able to control them.

"Releasing these terrorists overseas poses a real risk," Cotton said Wednesday. He also emphasized the danger of bringing prisoners not cleared for release to stateside prisons.

"The people we are releasing now are the most dangerous ones, the most immediate threat," Cotton expanded. "Bringing any number of them to the United States, I think, would pose serious problems, not just the immediate threats they pose to the facilities and the areas around the facilities but also the long-term ability to detain them, given what I suspect some judges will do in applying the full scope of constitutional rights to people who don’t have those rights."

Current law bars the military from using federal funds to move Guantanamo prisoners to the United States, a ban that would be extended by the fiscal year NDAA currently under consideration by the Senate. The White House threatened to veto the legislation in its current form on Tuesday, specifically criticizing the provisions related to Guantanamo.

"The bill continues unwarranted restrictions regarding detainees at Guantanamo Bay and adds new provisions, attempting to dictate how the Executive Branch conducts foreign policy and requiring the disclosure of sensitive national security information," the Office of Management and Budget said in a statement.

Cotton said on Wednesday that none of the prisoners remaining at Guantanamo should be released.

"They are prisoners of war in an ongoing war and it is in our national security interests to keep them right where they are at Guantanamo Bay. It’s a modern, humane, and effective facility," Cotton said.