Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein is daring to speak out in favor of moving Guantanamo Bay prisoners to the United States despite a dicey political environment where most Democrats cannot run away fast enough from the issue.
The Senate voted Wednesday to strip $80 million that President Obama had wanted for closing the facility from a war funding bill. Democrats are now joining Republicans in warning about the dangers of transferring detainees to U.S. soil -- it doesn't help matters that more than half of Americans polled in surveys indicate they oppose moving the detainees to the United States.
But Feinstein, who heads the Senate Intelligence Committee, is running against the grain of her fellow Democrats.
Voicing one of the most detailed cases to date on why U.S. communities would be safe should the Obama administration decide to move detainees ashore, Feinstein outlined her argument while on the Senate floor Wednesday like a lawyer in a courtroom. She first cited Supreme Court cases, then took on each of three categories of detainees at Gitmo and then highlighted American "supermax" prisons which currently house convicted terrorists.
Feinstein, who often wades into divisive issues with a calm demeanor, was one of the first members of Congress to call for closing the island prison. She did so in 2007, setting a one-year timeline for the closure through an amendment to a defense bill. That amendment was never given a vote by Democrats, who controlled the chamber then.
Her argument is that the federal prison system is currently housing a number of convicted terrorists and none have escaped.
But first, Feinstein cited four high court cases that "make one thing exceedingly clear -- the legal rights of these detainees are the same under the Constitution, whether they are kept on American soil or elsewhere. Attempts to diminish or deny these rights have only served to delay the legal process in Guantanamo."
Feinstein appeared to be warning colleagues who want to keep the detainees off U.S. soil that it will really make no difference in the eyes of the Supreme Court, in terms of their legal rights.
Before defending the radioactive issue of incarcerating terrorists in the United States, Feinstein sought to reiterate one point: "No one is talking about releasing dangerous individuals into our communities or neighborhoods as some would have us believe," she said. "The best option is to prosecute the terrorists who plotted, facilitated and carried out attacks against the United States."
She noted that the United States has prosecuted terrorists for bombings at embassies in Africa, for the 1993 World Trade Center attack, for plots to bomb airplanes and a U.S. airport, and for "attending terrorist training camps and for inciting violent acts against the United States."
"The individuals held at Guantanamo pose no greater threat to our security than these individuals convicted of these crimes who are currently held in prison in the United States and are no danger to our neighbors or our communities," Feinstein admonished.
The Bush administration had estimated that of the 240 or so detainees held at Gitmo, only about 60 to 80 could be prosecuted for crimes against the United States or its allies. It is possible some could be tried at revised military commissions, recently approved by Obama.
Feinstein said the U.S. is "more than capable of prosecuting terrorists and housing detainees before, during and after trial."
Citing the "Supermax" facility in Florence, Colo., the highest security rating of all U.S. prisons, Feinstein referred to a picture of the prison and said, "We have the facilities to keep convicted terrorists behind bars indefinitely and keep them away from American citizens."
She went on to note that the prison "isn't in a neighborhood. It isn't in a community. It is an isolated Supermax facility. It has 490 beds. They are reserved for the worst of the worst. This facility houses not only drug kingpins, serial murderers, and gang leaders, but also terrorists who have already been convicted of crimes in this country. There have been no escapes, and it is far, as I said, from America's communities and neighborhoods."
The stalwart senator cited 20 convicted terrorists now or formerly held at the Florence prison, including Ramsi Yousef, the mastermind of the 1993 U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania; the so-called "Blind Sheikh," Omar Abdel Rahman, who was behind plots to blow up New York City landmarks; the shoe-bomber Richard Reid; and the "Millennium bomber" Amad Rasam, who was intent on blowing up a Los Angeles airport.
But one Democrat from Colorado, freshman Sen. Mike Bennet, brushed off questions about whether he would approve of detainees being brought to Florence. Asked by FOX News, he rushed away, saying only that he had not heard what Feinstein had proposed. Bennet is up for election in 2010.
Feinstein said the time has come to close Guantanamo, which she called "a symbol of abuse and disregard for the rule of law for too long. Four Supreme Court decisions should convince even the most recalcitrant of those among us. It is in our own national security interest that Guantanamo be closed as quickly and carefully as possible."
As for her home state of California, Feinstein is one of the few Democrats who didn't take a "not-in-my-backyard" approach, saying: "Yes, we have maximum security prisons in California eminently capable of holding these people as well, and from which people -- trust me -- do not escape."
Whether her constituents agree remains to be seen, but the 75-year old is not one to bow to pressure. She has faced down Democrats on some of President Bush's more divisive nominees, being the deciding committee vote in approving Judge Leslie Southwick and former Attorney General Michael Mukasey.
The no-nonsense chairwoman stood up for Roland Burris in his effort to become an Illinois senator after a controversial appointment left him without the support of Senate Democratic leadership.
Feinstein summed up her stand on Guantanamo Wednesday, saying, "I believe that American justice is what makes this country strong in the eyes of the world. American justice is what people believe separates the United States from other countries. And American justice has to be applied to everyone, because if it isn't, we then become hypocrites in the eyes of the world."