May 20 2009

Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby, Sen. Jeff Sessions join GOP challenge to Obama on detainee issues Sessions, Shelby join challenge on detainee policy

Birmingham News

Alabama's two U.S. senators are taking part in an emerging Republican strategy to question the Obama administration's policies on terrorist detainees, challenging whether they can be moved to the United States and suggesting any investigations into harsh treatment should go back to former President Bill Clinton's time as well.

Sens. Richard Shelby and Jeff Sessions, both Republicans, have been quizzing U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder over the last several days on the topics, and their questions are gaining traction among GOP leadership eager to find a weak spot in President Barack Obama's popularity.

"I think it's a winning issue," said Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla.

On Tuesday, Democrats relented and stripped $80 million out of a supplemental war funding bill that was supposed to go toward closing down the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Shelby and other Republicans had been threatening for several days to block the funding over lingering questions about how to handle the 240 detainees.

"It is misguided to close a facility housing terrorists when there is no plan," Shelby said Tuesday evening on the Senate floor.

Democratic leaders said they agree with Republicans that no Guantanamo detainees should be released in the United States but that the prison should eventually be closed, as Obama wants.

"Democrats under no circumstances will move forward without a comprehensive, responsible plan from the president," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said about removing the $80 million from the bill.

Shelby's strategy has also included confrontations with Holder about how terrorism suspects were treated when he worked in the Clinton administration. Specifically, Shelby is focused on renditions - or transferring terrorism suspects to third countries - that occurred while Holder was deputy attorney general in the late 1990s. Shelby's message is clear: if it happened under Clinton, too, then his administration's actions should be subject to the same scrutiny as Democrats say they want of the Bush years.

"I have serious concerns that Mr. Holder could be leading investigations and prosecutions against U.S. officials who carried out the very same actions he approved. Renditions were carried out under his watch," Shelby said. Holder, however, disputes any similarities. He said renditions under Clinton's watch were not to third countries where there was a belief the detainees would be subject to torture.

"If there's a rendition taking a person to a place where the possibility is that person might be tortured, that's the kind of rendition I think is inappropriate," Holder testified recently. "From my memory of my time in the Clinton administration, I don't believe that we did that."

Sessions in April initiated a legal debate, asking Holder how he plans handle Guantanamo closing and still follow a 2005 law that blocks any illegal alien who has engaged in terrorist activity from entering the country. Holder has not responded yet to Sessions' inquiries, but he told a House committee last week that the issue was under review at the Justice Department.

Government military and security experts are currently reviewing the detainees' cases and making recommendations for how each should be handled, such as prosecution or transfer to another country.