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May 21, 2009

Vermont Senators Split on Gitmo Closure *UPDATED*

By a 90-6 vote yesterday, the US Senate denied Pres. Barack Obama's $80 million request to close the Guantanamo Bay detention camp in Cuba ("Gitmo") and move its roughly 240 occupants to other secure facilities.

Vermont's two-seat senate delegation split on the issue: Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) voted to approve the funding, while Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) voted with the majority to deny the president's funding request.

Leahy, who has spoken often about closing "Gitmo", is expected to say more later today after Obama delivers a speech on his administration's anti-terror measures.

"He believes it would be a mistake to start negating options before we know what the options are," David Carle, Leahy's spokesman, told Seven Days.

Democrats who opposed Obama say they want more details from the administration regarding how it would close the detention facility.

No word yet from Sanders' camp on why he is now opposed to closing Gitmo, after being a strong supporter of the measure in the past. Earlier this month, Sanders was quoted in the Washington Times slamming the continued operation of Gitmo.

"Gitmo has been proven to be a real disservice to our country and I would like to see it shut down as soon as possible," he said. "We have very violent criminals who are born and raised right here in the USA. I think we know how to handle violent people."

In 2007, Sanders joined Leahy and voted against a Senate resolution blocking Guantanamo detainees from being brought to the United States. Only Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV) joined them. The Senate approved the measure by a 94-3 margin.

That said, neither Leahy nor Sanders signed onto previous Gitmo closure bills sponsored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) or Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA).

The split vote was noticed by Louis Porter at the Times Argus, who has an excellent write-up in this morning's paper.


Since posting, I've received a statement from Sen. Sanders explaining his vote. Also, Sen. Leahy took to the floor of the US Senate around 12:40 p.m. urging his colleagues to reconsider denying Pres. Obama the funds necessary to close Guantanamo.

Statements below the fold.

First, the statement from Sen. Sanders:

"Two years ago, I was one of the few to vote against the resolution because I wanted to make it clear that I believed that Bush's decision to keep Guantanamo open was a disaster for the image of our country and for our entire foreign policy.  It encouraged terrorism rather than effectively combating it.

"Today, I agree with President Obama that Guantanamo must be shut down — and I want it shut down as soon as possible.  Further, I want to make sure that torture is never again part of America's interrogation practices and that all detainees are treated under the rules of the Geneva Convention.

"The concern now is that a number of important questions remain unanswered regarding the rather complicated issue of not just how you close down the facility, but what you do with the prisoners.  Are there some who should be released, are there others who should be returned to their home countries, are we confident that under Bush the correct determinations were made with respect to these prisoners' status as 'enemy combatants'?

"In order to answer these questions President Obama has appointed a high-level committee of top administration officials who will be issuing a report in the coming months.  I think that it is prudent to review that plan they develop before we spend $80 million in taxpayer money.

"And, by the way, that is why I will likely be voting against final passage of the entire bill which contains $73 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan without providing, to my mind, the kind of exit strategy to both conflicts that I believe we need."

That was Sanders' reasoning, and now onto Leahy's updated comments. Today, Leahy took to the floor of the US Senate to provide further reasoning behind his vote yesterday to close Gitmo.

In a five-minute speech, Leahy told colleagues that keeping Guantanamo open does not make the US safer. In fact, it may do the opposite by keeping it open longer.

"No matter what we intended to do [with yesterday's vote], we made our nation less safe," said Leahy. "Terrorist leaders have used our actions as a way to recruit new members."

Leahy also noted that the US court system currently tries "dangerous people" and holds them in jail, and trying and detaining these suspects would be no different.

"In this debate political rhetoric has drowned out justice and reality," added Leahy. He said the Senate should support Pres. Obama's efforts to close Guantanamo as it is an important step toward repairing the US image.

"Banning the use of torture was an essential first step, but only by shutting the Guantanamo facility can we repair our image in the world," said Leahy.

Strange times we live in, indeed.

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