Hoeven visits Cuba, wants Gitmo detention facility open permanently

FARGO – North Dakota Republican Sen. John Hoeven says a visit to Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, on Monday reaffirmed his belief that the controversial military facility there should stay open permanently.

Hoeven toured the Guantánamo Bay Detention Center – which houses accused enemy combatants in the war on terror – during a congressional visit with fellow GOP Sens. Jim Risch of Idaho, Pat Roberts of Kansas and Roy Blunt of Missouri.

North Dakota Republican Sen. John Hoeven talks with Rear Adm. Jeffrey Harbeson, commander of the Joint Task Force Guantanamo Mission, about how the military manages the Guantánamo Bay Detention Facility. Hoeven toured the base facilities and operations during a visit Monday, June 13, 2011. / Source: Sen. John Hoeven's office

As a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Hoeven has a role in determining military funding – such as that for the Gitmo facility, which the Obama administration wants to close.

The facility has drawn divisive opinions because of controversial issues such as the questionable treatment of detainees, harsh interrogation techniques used against them and the judicial rights they’re allowed.

While President Obama seeks to shut down the detention center, no alternative exists to house the accused terrorists – and no state wants them on their soil, Hoeven said.

He said he believes the detention center should stay open because it’s the “right policy approach” for the United States to handle the detainees.

“(I) believe we are in a war on terror, these are prisoners of war and we need to handle them through military tribunals,” he said on a conference call Tuesday from his Capitol Hill office.

Hoeven said the facility also offers a cost-savings for the federal government through the military tribunals that are scheduled to begin there this fall.

Trials in military court would cost far less than a trial in the federal district court system, Hoeven said.

“That is the right approach in terms of the way these issues should be handled – and making sure they’re handled in a just way, a fair way, an open way where people can see exactly how it’s being done,” Hoeven said. “On the human rights issues and on the issues of perception among foreign countries, it’s truly set it up as an open process.”

After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, President George W. Bush designated the Gitmo facility as a prison for suspects in America’s war on terror, such as those with ties to al-Qaeda.

The facility currently houses 171 detainees – who range from prisoners of war to enemy combatants accused of war crimes, such as the alleged 9-11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

Also among the Gitmo detainees is Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, who allegedly orchestrated the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole in 2000.

That terrorist attack killed 17 American sailors, including Portland, N.D., native Kevin Shawn Rux, an electronics warfare technician, 2nd class.

The trial against al-Nashiri is set for September.

Hoeven said the transparent process of the tribunal should show Americans and others around the globe how well the detainees are being treated.

During his visit Monday, Hoeven said he toured the detention center, spoke with the guards and met with top officials there.

He said security restrictions prevented him from talking personally with any of the detainees.

But, “I could observe the prisoners and see that they were being well-treated,” Hoeven said.

Some critics have condemned the government for depriving the detainees of basic judicial rights – such as holding detainees without charging them or affording them a speedy trial – but Hoeven is among those officials who believe otherwise.

“In a military sense of prosecuting the war on terror, they do provide due process,” he said Tuesday, adding that the military tribunals – as opposed to civilian court – “are also very important for our need to interrogate these prisoners of war (and) to get the information we need to track down other terrorists.”

The use of harsh interrogation techniques at Gitmo has never been confirmed, despite rumors and widespread media attention on the subject in recent years.

Hoeven said Adm. Jeffrey Harbeson, commander of the Joint Task Force Guantanamo Mission, told him that American officials never used waterboarding – the act of simulating drowning – as an interrogation technique at the detention facility.

“There’s a lot of misperception,” Hoeven said. “They have never water-boarded anyone there. They went through their procedures and were very careful to go through the proper channels.”

Hoeven said he has signed on to Senate legislation introduced by New Hampshire Republican Kelly Ayotte, which calls for the Gitmo facility to continue operating as the detention facility for enemy combatants and the site of military tribunals related to the war on terror.

Hoeven said he’s unsure when the bill will see action on the Senate floor.

“Having been there I think they are doing a very good job,” Hoeven said. “(I have) seen how the military is managing the center in a professional and effective way. They have the proper facilities to house detainees and give them a fair trial through the military tribunals.”