EXCLUSIVE: Republican Sen. James Lankford led his GOP colleagues in urging President Biden not to free or relocate detainees from Guantanamo Bay, after the administration approved three detainees for release and transfer to other countries.
Lankford, R-Okla., sending a letter to the president obtained by Fox News, raised concerns about the Periodic Review Board’s decision to release Saifullah Paracha, 73, of Pakistan, who U.S. intelligence considered a facilitator of financial transactions after the 9/11 attacks; Abdul Rabbani, 54, of Pakistan, who helped move and house Al Qaeda “fighters and key figures”; and Uthman Abdul al-Rahim Uthman, 40, of Yemen, a veteran of the Tora Bora battle who was at one time selected to be a bodyguard to Usama bin Laden.
All three have been held for nearly 20 years and were never charged with a crime.
The board is made up of representatives from the attorney general, the director of national intelligence and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as well as the secretaries of defense, homeland security and state.
“We are concerned to learn that the Periodic Review Board, which operates at your direction, has approved the release of Saifullah Paracha, Abdul Rabbani, and Uthman Abdul al-Rahim Uthman,” they wrote. “While there were reasonable arguments for transferring and repatriating some low-risk detainees under your predecessors, we all agree that relocating the remaining 40 individuals or closing the facility would create an unnecessary risk.”
“We must avoid repeating past mistakes and ensure GTMO detainees are brought to justice,” they wrote, adding that they hope the president “will assure Congress and the American people that you will not release or transfer current detainees.”
The top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee Jim Inhofe, and Republican Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas, Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, Kevin Cramer of North Dakota, Thom Tillis of North Carolina, Steve Daines of Montana, and Jerry Moran of Kansas, joined Lankford in writing to the president.
The letter comes after Biden’s decision to withdraw all U.S. forces from Afghanistan by Sept. 11, with Lankford and GOP senators saying that they “anticipate” the administration is “developing a clear path forward to maintain GTMO operations, which are supported by a bipartisan congressional majority and most Americans.”
Lankford and the Republican senators described the prison as having played “a vital role in the War on Terror” since 2002.
“Serving as a detention center for the last 19 years, the camp has housed hundreds of terrorists, including 680 detainees at its peak in 2003,” they wrote, noting that among the prisoners was Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the “principal architect” of the 9/11 attacks, as well as aides to bin Laden and Al Qaeda, accomplices to the 2000 USS Cole suicide bombing, and others who have planned or carried out attacks on the U.S.
“As you know from your tenure on Capitol Hill, the majority of Congress does not support closing the detention camp or transferring detainees to U.S. soil,” they wrote, noting that when former President Obama “tried to do so, Congress passed a variety of bipartisan measures, including legislation prohibiting detainee transfers to the United States, funding restrictions, and certification requirements.”
“These provisions remain important to ensure GTMO operations continue and no U.S. state is forced to host these detainees,” they wrote. “No American – in your home state of Delaware or anywhere else – should have to bear the risk of hosting Khalid Sheik Mohammed or other terrorists near their communities.”
The White House, in February, said it was the “intention” of the Biden administration to close the detention facility altogether, something President Barack Obama pledged to do within a year shortly after he took office in January 2009. The White House, though, gave no timeline, and told reporters that a “robust” review would take place, and would require the participation of officials from the Department of Defense, the Justice Department and other agencies.
Obama ran into domestic political opposition when he sought to close the detention center, a notorious symbol of the U.S. fight against terrorism.
At this point, there are only 40 prisoners left, and Guantanamo draws much less public attention.
At its peak in 2003, the detention center at the Navy base on the southeast tip of Cuba held nearly 680 prisoners. Amid the international outrage, President George W. Bush called it a “a propaganda tool for our enemies and a distraction for our allies” and said he supported closing it but left it to his successor.
Under Bush, the U.S. began efforts to prosecute some prisoners for war crimes in tribunals known as military commissions. It also released 532 prisoners.
While it was not successfully closed under Obama’s administration, 197 detainees were repatriated or resettled in other countries.
That left 41 under former President Donald Trump, who pledged to keep the prison open.
Of those who remain at Guantanamo, there are 10 men facing trial by military commission. They include five men charged with planning and providing logistical support to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The case has been bogged down in pre-trial proceedings for years.
The latest approvals bring the total number of approved releases to nine of the 40 detainees currently in Guantanamo Bay. It is unclear, at this point, where the three latest approved detainees will go.
Meanwhile, in a statement, Amnesty International said Biden should expedite the release of the wartime prison’s remaining detainees and close down the facility.
“Nine people are currently cleared for release at Guantánamo and some have been cleared for more than a decade, yet they are still stuck,” said Daphne Eviatar, the director of the Security With Human Rights program at Amnesty International USA. “This is an outrageous and shameful violation of human rights. President Biden cannot have true credibility advocating for other countries to respect human rights if he does not prioritize closing Guantánamo.”
The White House did not immediately respond to Fox News’ request for comment on the letter from Republican senators.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.