The Pentagon took an extra security precaution for Monday's trip to the Guantanamo detention center by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), a strong critic of the prison: It made sure Durbin brought along a Republican.
Durbin toured the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay with Sen. George Allen (R-Va.).
The Defense Department worked with Durbin's office for more than a month to make sure the day trip was not just a quick in and out. Some congressional delegations observe only part of the extensive prison operation. Durbin, who has a top secret plus clearance, signed up to see it all. The Pentagon wanted a second set of eyes with him -- to see the situation, if need be, through another set of lenses. Or to put it another way -- if Durbin returned comparing Gitmo to a gulag, the military wanted someone who could provide a rebuttal about treatment of detainees.
Just over a year ago, in June, 2005, the usually verbally adroit Durbin, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate, stumbled badly -- the worst political error of his career -- when discussing the conditions for prisoners in Guantanamo. From the floor of the Senate, he compared the treatment to "Nazis, Soviets in their gulags or some mad regime -- Pol Pot or others -- that had no concern for human beings."
Durbin's words drew rebukes from his friends and provided grist for his foes. He provided material for all sorts of commentators at Fox News. However poorly inmates were treated, Durbin was wrong to compare the U.S. military to the Nazi genocide, the Stalinist regime and the Pol Pot murders. He ended up apologizing from the Senate floor.
Durbin understood that his day trip would serve to resurrect the low-point episode. But the situation has changed over the past year. The Supreme Court just said the Bush White House had to stop special military trials for detainees. It said the administration violated the Geneva Conventions and U.S. law. Bush is being urged to shutter Guantanamo from a variety of quarters.
Durbin toured everywhere, even to areas not mapped out in advance. He visited the camp where inmates recently committed suicide. He talked to interrogators and observed a prisoner being interrogated.
Durbin was accompanied by Adm. Harry Harris, the base commander. Durbin told CNN's Wolf Blitzer that the tour was eye-opening: "We were given access to the entire camp facility. I think it was one of the first tours that saw everything, and I want to salute Adm. Harris, who I think is doing a great job with the soldiers and sailors at Guantanamo (under) very trying conditions.''
Durbin observed the interrogation via a camera, so the prisoners did not know anyone was watching. "It was much different than you might imagine. A relationship had been developed between the interrogator and the translator. The interrogator sat down, opened a bag, handed the detainee a Subway sandwich. He lit up and started eating the sandwich and started talking. It was a much different circumstance than most people would imagine.''
Though Durbin was impressed with the operation, it did not change his opinion that Guantanamo ought to be closed down. Durbin told Blitzer, "I understand the powerful negative image of Guantanamo around the world. And I do believe we should close down that facility over a few months' period of time.''
Emanuel vs. Dean
Tense. That's a word to describe the relation between Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean and Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), the boss of the Dems' House political operation.
Emanuel is pressuring Dean to keep a pot of money around to spend on his highest priority House races. Dean is willing to fork over some cash to Emanuel, but does not want to give him a blank check. This matter has been played out in the insider political press since May.
Dean has made a deal with Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), who runs the Democrats' Senate political organization and has cordial relations with the Democratic Governors Association and the Democratic Legislative campaign committee.
After some negotiation, Dean has made an offer to Emanuel to help support the November candidates. No surprise, Emanuel wants more.
Talks continue. "We are just in a perpetual state of working out the details," Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman Bill Burton told me.
Emanuel needs to pick up 15 seats for the Democrats to grab control of the House. Win or lose, Emanuel will not seek a second term as DCCC chair. As expected.
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