President Obama’s counterterrorism adviser, John O. Brennan, delivered the administration’s most forceful public call to date for the closure of the Guantanamo Bay Detention Center and the use of federal courts to try some detainees held there.
Pointing the finger at Congress, he called legislative efforts to block prisoner transfers to the United States for trial or detention an “unprecedented encroachment” on Obama’s authorities to prosecute suspects.
He said any “terrorists captured in the United States would be prosecuted exclusively through the criminal justice system,” and not by the military, as some members of Congress want.
Brennan described the closure of Guantanamo as an “essential national security objective,” and noted that its continued use was “preventing other countries from handing over terrorism suspects to the United States.”
Although Brennan was recounting stated administration policies, he did so in a far more public and passionate way than other officials have in recent months. “I believe in this,” he said later, at the conclusion of a speech at a national security symposium sponsored by The Atlantic Philanthropies and New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice.
In his remarks, Brennan alluded to recent Congressional hearings led by New York Republican Rep. Peter King that focused on Muslim radicals in the United States. Brennan called it “un-American,” to single out individual groups based on ethnicity, political affiliation or religion.
In a lengthy conversation afterward with reporters, Brennan said that if captured, Osama bin Laden would not be taken to the prison at Guantanamo Bay, categorically disputing a recent claim by CIA Director Leon Panetta.
“All the steps we are taking are to decrease the population there, not increase it,” he said. He did not say where bin Laden would be held, just that there were other detention “options available if we find people overseas. Certainly, if they are charged with crimes in the United States, they will be detained and prosecuted in our courts,” he said.
Remarking on events in the Middle East, Brennan said historic change was welcome. The administration is working to “guard against the degradation of counterterrorism cooperation,” in regions where change has been swift, he said.
In most cases, Brennan said, intelligence cooperation has been unaffected because intelligence leaders have remained in their positions. While offering no specifics, he noted that amid the unrest, “We have been able to have counterterrorism successes, whether that is bringing people back who were released, or pursing terrorist plans that were underway long before these political winds were sweeping through the area.”
Brennan said he is especially concerned, from a counterterrorism perspective, that al-Qaida suspects in prisons in places such as Libya, Egypt and elsewhere were escaping or being released from jails. He said the United States is “redoubling efforts to identify individuals and what they are up to.”
That will prove especially challenging in Libya. The United States is “not working with the Libyan government anymore,” Brennan said, but there are other “opportunities for visibility there.”
He also warned that al-Qaida, while fractured and operating largely as individual franchises, has a presence in Libya and could take advantage of “political vacuums.”
“Terrorist groups are looking at how they can take advantage of the current situation, and we need to offset these current developments,” Brennan said. Middle Eastern intelligence services also are “scurrying to find out how terrorist organizations are taking advantage of changes on the ground.”
In the speech, Brennan said that what remains of al-Qaida’s original leadership is “hunkered down in Pakistan’s tribal regions.” Elements of the group were operating in Yemen and areas of North Africa, he said, but did not mention an al-Qaida presence in Afghanistan.
Brennan, who has spent the past two years focusing in part on Washington’s relationship with Yemen, acknowledged reports that troops in Yemen had opened fire on protesters, killing as many as 40 people. He “condemned in the strongest terms” the shootings and said he intended to speak by phone today with Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Asked whether Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi should face charges in connection with the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am flight over Scotland, Brennan said: “I want justice to be fully served for any type of terrorist attack that has taken place. So if there is additional evidence that would lead to the potential investigation and prosecution of other individuals, we need to make sure we can do that.”
Brennan said the United Nations Security Council resolution imposing a no-fly zone over Libya “sent a very clear signal” that Qaddafi needs to stop attacks against civilians. “The United States is not going to stand by and watch this,” he said, “nor will other countries.”