The Gitmo Rebellion

Flickr/<a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/paulk/">Paul Keller</a> (<a href="http://creativecommons.org/about/what-is-cc">Creative Commons</a>)

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It’s not unusual to see Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Joe Lieberman, (I-Conn.) complaining about President Barack Obama’s conduct of the war on terror. 

But when they’re openly joined by two Democratic senators—with more potentially hovering in the wings—that spells trouble for the administration’s agenda. On Tuesday morning, Sens. Jim Webb (D-Va.) and Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) teamed up with Graham for a press conference to announce a bill that would block funding for Obama’s proposal to try 9/11 co-conspirators, including Khalid Sheikh Mohamed, in civilian courts.

By expressing full support for Graham’s measure, Webb and Lincoln are essentially moving into open revolt against the White House’s detainee policy. Lincoln, who faces a tough reelection fight in Arkansas this year, said she would be foolish if she didn’t listen to her constituents and oppose the 9/11 trials. Webb insisted he was not opposing the trials because they could be held in his home state of Virginia if New York does not prove to be a feasible venue. “I wrote a column on 9/12” calling the conspirators war criminals, he reminded reporters, implying that he has always prefered the detainees to be tried in a military setting.

After the press conference, Graham didn’t refute a suggestion from reporters that he also has the votes of Arkansas’ Mark Pryor and Washington’s Maria Cantwell. Pryor, Cantwell, and all 40 Republicans joined Webb and Lincoln in supporting a similar measure pushed by Graham in early November. The Senate rejected that measure, 55-45. But Graham said he was sure his bill would pass “overwhelmingly” this time around if it ever came up for a vote.

If Graham’s gambit succeeds, it would upend the White House’s promise to close down Guantanamo Bay. His legislation would require the 9/11 conspirators to be tried in military tribunals at Gitmo. That would make it close to impossible for Obama to close down the prison until after the trials were completed—a process that could take years.  

 Graham and the other senators at the press conference denied they were “playing politics,” and “fear-mongering,” as President Obama charged in his YouTube question-and-answer section on Monday. Perhaps, but their arguments were riddled with factual errors and inconsistencies. Several senators, including Graham, suggested that a 9/11 trial would hand the accused terrorists a “microphone” or a “stage” to recruit new followers. But federal criminal trials are never televised, and press access to the trials would almost certainly be heavily restricted—for the same reasons that press access to military commissions is restricted. And some senators, including Alabama’s Jeff Sessions, suggested that people like the accused “underwear bomber” Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who was captured in the United States, are “not entitled” to constitutional rights like civilian trials—ignoring the fact that many parts of the Constitution protect “persons” or “the accused,” not “citizens.”* (All nine members of the Supreme Court would likely find Sessions’ view unconstitutional.)

By standing with McCain, Sessions, and Graham, Lincoln and Webb are showing the president they’re serious about fighting his detainee policy. But four Democrats, Joe Lieberman, and every Republican still isn’t enough to pass a bill in the Senate. If Lincoln and Webb want their rebellion to succeed, they’re going to have to enlist some more of their colleagues.

*Clarified. The link (Glenn Greenwald) has more on this subject.

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