By Ed O'Keefe
Some of President Obama's most vocal Republican foreign policy critics said Thursday that they're willing to work with him to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba -- but only if he comes up with a clear plan to do so.
Meeting with reporters shortly after Obama outlined the future of his counterterrorism policies, John McCain (Ariz.), Saxby Chambliss (Ga.), Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.) and Kelly Ayotte (N.H.) also provided pointed, specific criticism of several of the president's broader points.
McCain recalled how he and Graham met with top Obama aides in 2009 to work on a plan to close the terrorist prison, but recalled that the talks faltered when the administration failed to put forth a plan. Based on Obama's renewed vow to close the prison, McCain said he and his colleagues are willing to work with the president again, "but this time we hope there is a coherent plan for addressing that issue."
"There are a lot of moving parts to closing Guantanamo Bay, not the least of which is where you put these people, which ones have to be kept on almost an indefinite basis, those who are eligible for military courts and those who are eligible for civilian courts. All those are tied together," McCain said.
Chambliss, who is the most senior Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said he has stronger reservations about closing Guantanamo, fearing what might happen if long-sought terrorism suspects are suddenly apprehended.
"If we were to capture some of the Benghazi terrorists who we know today are running free, what are we going to do with them? We have no place to take them," Chambliss said. "We're going to bring them into an Article III [civilian federal] court or we're going to trust the Libyans to prosecute them? What's going to happen to them? That's just one simple question."
Graham agreed that a revised strategy would be needed before transferring detainees out of Cuba: "You need a plan that would reassure the American public that we're not talking about dealing with people who robbed a liquor store but terrorists, and we're going to have a legal system that would allow some to be tried in military court, some to be tried in federal civilian court where appropriate, some to be released when appropriate; and, yes, some to be held under the law of war because if we let them back out into the system they will kill."
Chambliss and Ayotte especially took issue with Obama's plan to lift the moratorium on transferring Guantanamo's Yemeni detainees to their home country.
"Has Yemen shown any indication that they're more capable of looking after those individuals? Absolutely not," Chambliss said. "And if we were to transfer those individuals to Yemen, we'd be just like turning them loose. And I just don't think that's the right thing to do. We've got state-of- the-art facilities at Guantanamo. We should try the individuals that are at Guantanamo today in the courtrooms at Guantanamo, then make a decision on what to do with them after that."
Ayotte called plans to return detainees to Yemen "very troubling" and cited current State Department travel warnings about the country as evidence.
McCain and Graham also took issue with Obama's assertion that "core al-Qaeda" in Afghanistan and Pakistan is "on a path to defeat."
"I believe we're not in a war that's not winding down, we're in a war that's morphing," Graham said.
"The enemy is morphing, it is spreading, there are more fears of conflict today than there have been in several years and our policy towards Syria, Iraq, our indecision about leaving troops in Afghanistan has created instability," he added later. "Our allies are more afraid than I've ever seen, our enemies more emboldened."
McCain agreed: "I believe we're still in a long, drawn-out conflict with al Qaeda. To somehow argue that al-Qaeda is somehow "on the run' comes from a degree of unreality that is really quite incredible. Al-Qaeda is expanding all over the Middle East, from Mali to Yemen and all places in between. To somehow think that we can bring the authorization of the use of military force to a complete closure contradicts the reality from the facts on the ground. Al-Qaeda will be with us for a long time."