WASHINGTON — A Senate bill giving President Barack Obama the power to transfer terrorist suspects held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to the U.S. for prosecution survived Republican attempts to water down the effort on Tuesday.
Colorado’s Democratic senators support the new presidential powers, and voted against an amendment that would have stripped Obama of that authority that also allows the administration to transfer the prisoners to foreign countries.
There are 164 prisoners held at the Guantanamo Bay facility, and Obama wants to send 80 prisoners back to Yemen and prosecute others in U.S. courts on American soil.
Sen. Mark Udall said in a floor speech prior to the vote that the president needs the flexibility to transfer the detainees to face justice in non-military venues, and argued that the new powers would strengthen national security.
“In many cases a civilian court is faster, it’s more efficient and more effective at bringing terrorists to justice than military commissions,” Udall said.
“So why do we handcuff ourselves and limit our options to bring accused terrorist to justice?” Udall said. “Our enemy already knows we are tough we have pursed them all over the globe. We’ve eliminated their leaders and we have killed or captured many of their followers, but we can be tough and we can be smart at the same time. And handcuffing our military and justice department in their efforts to bring our enemies to justice is simply short-sighted and counter-productive,” Udall said.
“Doing so only impedes justice, erodes the image of the United States, and serves as a recruiting tool for a new generation of terrorists,” Udall said.
The language is included in the Senate’s version of a defense authorization bill but conflicts with the House version passed earlier this year that would have made it tougher for the president to transfer prisoners to the U.S. for prosecution.
Senate Republicans objected to the bill’s new permissions and said it would grant constitutional rights that terrorist suspects held in Guantanamo are denied.
“We can’t treat them like common criminals,” said Sen. Kelly Ayotte, New Hampshire Republican and author of the language stripping Obama of the new authority.
Her amendment required 60 votes to pass, but failed on a 55-43 vote with Colorado Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet also voting against the measure.
Democrats have not said whether prisons expected to house the terrorist suspects who would include the federal supermax prison in Fremont County, but Udall insisted the transfer would not endanger American lives.
“We have a system of justice second to none, and prisons that already hold some of the most dangerous criminals in the world,” Udall said. “There’s no question that these individuals who have been convicted and sentenced, that they will be detained for the rest of their lives with no risk to our citizens.”
“Our moral standing will suffer the longer we hold people without trial,” Udall said.
Sen. Saxby Chambliss, vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee and Georgia Republican, told Fox News after the vote that he would side with the House version and try to strip the Senate language when the two chambers work out the differences in a conference committee to prohibit the transfer of prisoners.
“I just don’t think the American people want any of those individuals transferred to the United States where they will be housed in prisons here, that may be down the street from your neighborhood and you may know it and you may never know it,” Chambliss said.
“But we don’t need that to take place when we have a state-of-the-art prison at Guantanamo,” Chambliss said. “That’s where they ought to stay. These are the guys who carried out 9-11, these are the most hardened terrorists, and to think for one minute they ought to be brought to the soil of the United States, I think is just incomprehensible.”