Congressman: U.S. Should Try Gitmo Detainees As Enemy Combatants

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Earlier this week, President Obama announced that the United States would resume using military tribunals to try alleged terrorists held at Guantanamo Bay. The move ends the president's two-year freeze on military trials at the detention facility. Obama also signed an executive order for the US to continue indefinite detentions of suspects without trial. Former army officer and Republican Congressman Allen West toured the Guantanamo camp on Monday. He shares his views on military tribunals and the handling of terrorism suspects with host Michel Martin.


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News.

On the program today we bring you another in our series of conversations about those congressional hearings scheduled for tomorrow that ask if and how American Muslims are being radicalized. We've already heard from a member of Congress who is a Muslim. We've heard from another Muslim-American who thinks the hearings are needed. Today we'll hear from a woman who says the Congress needs to hear from a fuller range of Muslims in the U.S. and she's doing something about that. We'll have that conversation a bit later.

But we begin with an equally charged issue, how the United States should deal with detained terrorism suspects. Earlier this week, President Obama announced that the United States would resume using military tribunals to try suspected terrorists held at Guantanamo Bay. Obama had suspended military trials days after taking office and had pledged to close the facility down. The Congress balked at that and now the president has also signed an executive order for the U.S. to continue indefinite detentions of suspects without trial, outraging many supporters who feel that he has turned his back on a campaign promise.

Some 172 prisoners are still being held at Guantanamo. Congressman Allen West, a Republican of Florida, also a retired lieutenant colonel who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan is just back from there. He was on a tour of the facility and he's with us now from his offices on Capitol Hill. Congressman, thank you so much for joining us once again.

Representative ALLEN WEST (Republican, Florida): Well, thank you for having me, Michel, and good day to you and yours.

MARTIN: Thank you. So, let's begin with the tour. What did you find there and did it - was the facility what you expected it to be?

Rep. WEST: Well, I have to tell you, the first thing we have to just give a hat tip to Admiral Harbeson and all of our men and women in uniform that are serving down there in some very stressful conditions for themselves. Because when you think about the professionalism that they continue to show while some of the reports of, you know, having feces and urine thrown on them. Some of the racial slurs that are hurled at our African-American and Hispanic soldiers and sailors and airmen and Marines, and as well as the things that are said to our females, you really have to be just absolutely humbled and honored by the way that they're carrying themselves.

And when I look at the facilities and the medical care and the treatment that we are providing down there, it is, you know, topnotch. And, you know, I think one of the critical things we have to ask ourselves, you know, are these criminals or are they enemy combatants? And if they are enemy combatants, are they lawful enemy combatants or unlawful enemy combatants? And I think that once we can answer that very important question, then we can proceed on and understand how we deal with the situation.

MARTIN: How do you think the situation should be dealt with, as you put it. I understand that you feel that the president's - you support the president's executive order allowing for the indefinite detention of terrorism detainees without trial, but you don't feel that it goes far enough. What is your view of how we should handle the situation going forward?

Rep. WEST: Oh, the most important thing is these are unlawful enemy combatants. They are non-state, non-uniform belligerents that have been captured on the battlefield. And we must understand that the battlefield is not just Iraq or Afghanistan, it's everywhere. When you look at what happened last week, when we have four airmen that were shot, two of them were killed, this is not a criminal act. This is a jihadist, a terrorist act and that person that did it is an unlawful enemy combatant. He should be removed from the battlefield indefinitely.

And it's not about, you know, providing rights. We do provide, you know, some of the topnotch medical care down there. I mean, when you see the facilities, when you understand the specialists that are flowing in for them, the colonoscopies, the immunizations, the prosthetic limbs that have been given to these gentlemen, we're doing above and beyond the call of duty based upon what the Geneva Convention would say for people that are definitely not signatories.

MARTIN: Well, people would argue that the Americans offer people like this rights not because they're American's, but because we are. That it's in keeping with our values as Americans to extend, you know, basic human rights and civil protections to individuals like this.

Rep. WEST: And we have done that, Michel. We have done that. You know, when I go down there and I see how individuals that are living who have, you know, who plan to kill my brothers and sisters in arms, we have done more than what is called for.

MARTIN: But, you know, Congressman, too much...

Rep. WEST: We have the 24 - look, we've got a 24-year-old Canadian-born individual who at the age of 15 killed an American soldier and also is guilty of five war crimes. But yet he's going to spend one more year in Guantanamo and going to be released to Canada. And at the maximum he will spend seven more years there. So in 2019, he could be released.

MARTIN: Well, no, the question, I think, Congressman, is that there are those who still aren't certain that the process has demonstrated the guilt of all the individuals there. The government has not been able to prove that every single one of them, 172 detainees still held at Guantanamo, are in fact enemy combatants. And so the question...

Rep. WEST: Well, let me ask you...

MARTIN: So the question that people have is that...

Rep. WEST: I mean, they're it goes - there it goes the need to go through a hearing process.

MARTIN: So that's the question: What should happen?

Rep. WEST: Well, let me ask you a question, though. If you capture a guy on the battlefield that is planting an IED, do you charge that person or is he an enemy combatant?

MARTIN: The question, congressman, is that the purpose of...

Rep. WEST: No, no. I'm asking you the question. Do you charge that person or is he an enemy combatant?

MARTIN: Sir, with all due respect, I am not charged with the responsibility for making this decision. That's why we're offering you the opportunity to tell us what we feel.

Rep. WEST: I'm asking you the question because we're having a discussion about it.

MARTIN: Sir, I don't feel it's appropriate for me to offer my personal opinion on these matters. That's why we offer the opportunity to persons who...

Rep. WEST: Well, let me offer you my assessment.

MARTIN: Yes. That's why you're here.

Rep. WEST: I assess that that is an unlawful enemy combatant that has to be removed from the battlefield and he has to be removed indefinitely. This is not a police action. These are not criminals. These are enemy combatants. They are non-state, non-uniform, not wearing any type of open carry of arms, which is what the Geneva Convention talks about.

Now, you know, we have the instances where the next three individuals are going to be brought up for trials; that's fine. We go through that process. But we don't need to be delaying this process either. You know, when you talk to the people down there, they're saying this may be another year. We have a $12 million courtroom facility that is also a secure facility. And since it has been completed in 2006, that $12 million facility has only been in use for seven days.

But yet because it's a secure facility, it has to be guarded 24/7. That's a waste of the American taxpayer dollars. We need to be utilizing that facility.

MARTIN: Allen West is a member of Congress. He is a Republican representing Florida. He's also a retired lieutenant colonel in the United States Army and he served both in Iraq and Afghanistan. He's just back from Guantanamo Bay, where he was touring the facilities there. Congressman, thank you so much for joining us once again.

Rep. WEST: Absolutely. Take care.

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