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Republicans Challenge Plans To Close Gitmo After Brussels Attacks

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

President Obama's political adversaries are citing the attacks in Brussels as another reason not to close the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The president's plan to do that got its first public hearing today on Capitol Hill. NPR's David Welna reports.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: As the Republican who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, California's Ed Royce has not been shy about opposing President Obama's plan to shut down Guantanamo's prison and transfer the reigning detainees to the U.S. At today's hearing, Royce said this is no time to do that.

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ED ROYCE: Europe is under siege by jihadists. We are under attack, so, unfortunately, we are going to need a detention facility for fanatical terrorists whose processing in the U.S. legal system is unwarranted and simply is not feasible.

WELNA: Defending the plan was the Pentagon's special envoy for closing the Guantanamo prison, Paul Lewis. He said some of the United States' closest partners strongly oppose the lockup.

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PAUL LEWIS: When our allies in counterterrorism are telling us that GTMO needs to be closed, we take an issue off the table.

WELNA: But according to California Republican Dana Rohrabacher, America's allies are deeply mistaken to think holding suspected terrorists in Guantanamo is a bad thing.

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DANA ROHRABACHER: Let me suggest that that attitude of our European friends may well be changing in the next six months or so, when they realize that the slaughter that's taking place in Paris and now in Brussels is part of an international movement to destroy Western civilization and replace it with a caliphate.

WELNA: This time it fell to the hearing's other witness to make the case that, despite those attacks, the president's plan still makes sense. Lee Wolosky is the State Department's special envoy for closing Guantanamo's prison.

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LEE WOLOSKY: Obviously our hearts go out to the people of Belgium today, and our hearts went out to the people of Paris just a few short months ago. But the continued maintenance of the facility at Guantanamo Bay did not prevent either of those attacks.

WELNA: President Obama refuses to send any terrorism suspects to Guantanamo. Of the nearly 800 previously sent there, only 91 remain. The rest were transferred to other countries, most of them during the Bush administration. California's Rohrabacher pressed the Pentagon's Lewis on whether any of those released detainees have killed any Americans.

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LEWIS: Sir, what I can tell you is, unfortunately, there have been Americans that have died.

WELNA: Just how many Lewis would not say. Still, it was a startling public revelation and one that Rohrabacher seized on.

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ROHRABACHER: As far as I'm concerned, if one child is saved because she would have been blown up by someone who's been released, it's better to keep all 90 of those people in GTMO.

WELNA: And chances are high that's where many will remain. The current law forbids the transfer of any Guantanamo detainee to the U.S. David Welna, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.