Press Conference With Senator Mitch McConnell

Press Conference

By:  Mitch McConnell
Date: May 21, 2009
Location: Washington, DC

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SEN. MCCONNELL: Well, good morning, everyone.

Q Good morning.

SEN. MCCONNELL: The Senate spoke overwhelmingly yesterday on the issue of the necessity of having a plan before closing Guantanamo. And with all due respect to the president, what we need here is not a speech, but a plan. And the plan was what was clearly missing from the speech here today.

What is driving this issue? In my view, what is driving this issue is a quest for popularity in Europe more than continuing policies that have demonstrably made America safe since 9/11. The president didn't mention what has happened since 9/11 a single time. And what's happened, of course, is we haven't been attacked again here at home. So clearly, these procedures and policies worked. It was a combination of getting on offense, and improving our defense. And some of the great players in all of that effort to protect us for the last seven-and-a-half years were people at the CIA.

Now, that's where we are. A big, flowery campaign speech is fine, but what the Congress voted for yesterday is not for a speech, but for a plan.

So I'll just end before taking your questions by giving the president a suggestion. He has demonstrated flexibility in Iraq by moving away from an arbitrary timeline for withdrawal. He demonstrated flexibility in Afghanistan by taking the same military personnel who ordered a surge in Iraq and put them in charge of a surge in Afghanistan. He demonstrated flexibility by backing off the decision not to release photographs from Abu Ghraib. And he backed off a decision to not use military commission trials at all. So he has shown some flexibility on national security.

So what I think he ought to do, and my recommendation to him is, move away from the arbitrary timeline for closing Guantanamo. It may cost you a few popularity points in Europe, but as you indicated, Mr. President, in your speech today, figuring out what to do with these folks is quite complicated. And it's better to do that in a timely fashion without the arbitrary deadline for closing Guantanamo.

With that, let me throw it open. Yeah.

Q The president made it pretty clear that he intends to bring at least a portion of these detainees into the U.S. prison system. I know you're not a fan of that, but can you elaborate on your feelings about that?

SEN. MCCONNELL: Sure. Not only am I not a fan of it, I think the director of the FBI indicated yesterday he wasn't a fan of it either, because he pointed out that there are some inherent difficulties with mainstreaming these terrorists into the United States, among them the possibility that they will continue to operate terrorist gangs from prison while they're here, which we know some American prisoners have been able to do.

We know from the mayor of Alexandria that when you have a community that's faced with a terrorist trial, it creates a lot of disruptions. And also, it's important for all of you to be reminded that it's not a question of whether we're capable of trying them here. It's a question of whether we should try them here. We've had an experience with trying detainees in civilian court. In many of the trials against terrorists in the U.S. that we've conducted in the past, sensitive information leaked out, which potentially endangered the security of the country.

We don't have to take all of those risks. Most of these trials ought to be conducted at Guantanamo, a $200 million state of the art facility with courtrooms for exactly this purpose.

So yes, we can bring them here. The question is, should we? And I think in most instances the answer would be no.

Q Senator, do you think that you can continue to withhold funding to prevent the president from taking action? And would you react to his comments about "season of fear" and the politics that surround the decisions that you made yesterday?

SEN. MCCONNELL: Well, all Americans would rather not have another 9/11 attack, and I think the president, who is known for his graciousness, should concede the point that we haven't been attacked again since 9/11. We obviously were doing some things right. Much of his speech was devoted to suggesting that all of this had been somehow mishandled. I don't know what is not to applaud about not being attacked again since 9/11.

Guantanamo has worked very well. I've been there. Others have been there. No one has escaped from there. I'm not sure this is broke and needs fixing.

I like the fact that we haven't been attacked again since 9/11.

And I, you know, think he ought to reconsider this and work -- continue to work their way through these cases. It's obviously not easy to do. The previous administration had a lot of difficulty with figuring out what to do with people like this when you're in a wartime situation. It's a challenging issue. But I think putting an arbitrary deadline on closing Guantanamo does not help.

Q Will you (pursue ?) -- (off mike) -- (seeking funds ?)?

SEN. MCCONNELL: I'm sorry?

Q Will you (pursue ?) --

SEN. MCCONNELL: Yes. We will.

Q Just to clarify your position, do you want it closed, or do you want it closed with a plan, or --

SEN. MCCONNELL: My personal preference -- I differed with President Bush and Senator McCain on whether we should ever close it. I think it is a perfect place, given the unique nature of the war on terror.

Having said that, the president, I assume, has the authority to close it if he'd like to, and if he's going to close it, then he needs a plan. President Bush never put an arbitrary deadline on it. Senator McCain and his campaign did not put an arbitrary deadline on it. And the reason they didn't is because it's easier said than done. As the president is finding out, you put an arbitrary date on it and then you really have a challenge in trying to figure out the best way to deal with all of these terrorists.


Q Leader, you note that -- well, nobody's ever escaped from Guantanamo. Can you address -- the president today said that nobody has ever escaped from one of our supermax prisons, which hold hundreds of convicted terrorists.

SEN. MCCONNELL: Yeah. I'm sure that's true. We can -- we can put them in U.S. jails. The question is, should we? And I think the director of the FBI yesterday pretty well summed up the potential problems with putting these terrorists in U.S. jails: that they have the ability to operate and develop gangs, to recruit other prisoners to be a part of the movement. This is a particularly troubling kind of individual that is best separated from the United States.

In addition to that, when you bring them into the U.S., you have the U.S. court system to deal with, which is different, in procedures, from a military commission or a military courtroom. And you run the risk, as I suggested earlier, during that proceeding, of having classified information get out that's useful to other terrorists in the war on terror. Could we?

Yes. The issue is, should we? The answer is no.

Q (Off mike.)

Something Senator Feinstein said on the floor yesterday, referring to four past Supreme Court cases, she said, it's clear that the court means for all the legal rights of U.S. citizens to extend to the detainees at Guantanamo.

Is that -- I assume that is not --

SEN. MCCONNELL: Well, I'm not an expert on what cases she may be referring to. So I really couldn't answer that question. What we do know is, as long as they're offshore, they could be tried by these military commissions. The Supreme Court in effect suggested that that's what we do.

We responded to that a couple of years ago and set them up. They could be conducted at Guantanamo. And frankly I think for most of these terrorists, that's probably the right place for them. And the president has opened the door for that possibility himself.

Q Do you see any room for like a middle ground on this? I mean, since the view is that a lot of your colleagues don't want to see Guantanamo shut down. Democrats seem to definitely want it.

Is there room? Is there any kind of a plan --

SEN. MCCONNELL: Well, it will be the president's responsibility to come up with a plan. In my view, Congress is going to still resist, until there is a plan. I would remind you, the amendment yesterday ended up being co-sponsored by the chairman of the Appropriations Committee and passing 90 to 6. Once we get a plan, then I think we can review the adequacy of it. But the president did not announce a plan today.


Q Senator, can I ask a slightly different question on a political angle?

Is it kind of frustrating to have Dick Cheney up there speaking for your point of view on this today? Because you've stood up there and you've said that it's nice to not have the burden of the Bush administration anymore.

Politically is it -- can you talk --

SEN. MCCONNELL: Well, I didn't watch. I didn't watch the vice president's speech. I was -- I am here reacting to the events of yesterday and to the president's speech. You know, everybody has got an opportunity to have their say in this country.


Q (Off mike) -- Lindsey Graham. He said that this debate has gotten very political. Is that something that you agree with or disagree with?

SEN. MCCONNELL: Well, I wish the president had not made the decision to close Guantanamo, in order to ostensibly make us more popular in Europe.

So I don't know which part of it you consider political. Some would argue that was a political decision and not a decision based upon, you know, what's the best way to keep America safe.

What we do know about Guantanamo -- we do know that people who are there, many of them, are hardened terrorists; we know they were involved in planning attacks on the United States that killed Americans; we know no one has ever escaped from Guantanamo; and we know we haven't been hit again here at home since 9/11.

I'm having a hard time seeing what is not a success story about that. So I guess you can argue about who is being political, but my view is, what the Senate did yesterday was stand up for the position that American safety trumps closing Guantanamo in an effort to be more popular in Europe.


Q Sir, you referenced the mayor of Alexandria earlier and also FBI Director Mueller. Have you talked to Director Mueller about what the dangers are to communities into which these people might be --

SEN. MCCONNELL: Yeah, I have not, but I was reacting to his testimony, I believe, just yesterday -- wasn't it, (Stu ?)? Yeah. It -- just -- just yesterday, testified on this very issue.

Q Senator, can you foresee any circumstances in which you would be comfortable with these detainees being moved to any U.S. facility?

SEN. MCCONNELL: Well, I think once we see the plan we can react to the adequacy of it.

What we do know is that Guantanamo has worked very well. And if we're going to move away from that policy, as the president's indicated we're going to do next January, then the adequacy of the plan will be a very big debate here in Congress. Maybe it will be adequate. I'm anxious to see what he plans.

Q Senator McConnell, the administration made the point that we can't really expect allies in Europe or other countries to take many more of these detainees unless we take some of them as well. Can you respond to that?

SEN. MCCONNELL: Well, I'm not too interested in lectures from Europeans about what we ought to do with terrorists who wanted to kill Americans.

I don't think that ought to be the determining factor here.

We have an appropriate place for them now. We have a way to try them now. They're called military commissions. Congress passed that two years ago. We should go forward and try those persons who ought to be tried in the military commission system at Guantanamo. And it doesn't raise, then, all of these other issues about mainstreaming these terrorists into the U.S. court system, where they potentially bring about the release of classified information, or putting them in U.S. prisons, even if they're supermax prisons, where they can interact with other inmates and recruit and create problems in this country.

We don't have to do all of that. We've got a system now that can work, that has been sanctioned by the Supreme Court.


Q The deadline that the president has set for closing this facility is about six months away. Are you worried that whenever he releases his plan that he's not going to have adequate time to safely execute it?

SEN. MCCONNELL: Well, I don't want to prejudge a plan before we've seen it, but he put himself in a bit of a box by picking a date in the first place. And there's no indication he wants to back down from that date yet. So we'll see. We'll just have to take --

Q Do you think you can safely move 240 of these detainees?

SEN. MCCONNELL: Well, we'll see. He'll have to give us a sense of what we, you know -- what he wants to do with them. You know, where are they going to go? I don't think Congress is going to provide any -- any funding for shutting down Guantanamo until we see a plan, and they might not want to then, depending upon the adequacy of the plan.

Thanks, everybody.

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