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Blunt visits Guantanamo, calls for two more terror suspects to be tried there

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 15, 2011 - WASHINGTON - After touring the Guantanamo Bay detention facility on Monday, U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt said he is convinced that it is "the right place" to detain suspected terrorists and to try them in military tribunals that are open to journalists but allow for real-time censorship of classified testimony.

Blunt, R-Mo., also told reporters Wednesday that he agrees with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., that two Kentucky residents who are Iraqi citizens should be sent to Guantanamo for a military trial. The men were indicted last month on federal terrorism charges. The Justice Department intends to try the men in federal court, a spokesman said.

"They should be tried in military courts," Blunt said, adding: "There's likely to be a difference of opinion -- certainly there will be between me and the Justice Department -- if the Justice Department decides that they should be tried in civilian courts in the U.S."

There are still 172 detainees at Guantanamo, a U.S. military base on Cuba also known as Gitmo. President Barack Obama wanted to close the facility and move trials to courts in this country, but he was blocked by congressional opposition. Earlier this year, the Justice Department ordered military trials at Gitmo for confessed 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed and other alleged co-plotters of the September 2001 attacks.

One of the major issues in arranging the military trials has been how to filter out classified or sensitive information that might emerge during testimony. Blunt said he went to Gitmo with three other senators on a visit arranged by the Senate Intelligence Committee "to see how the detainee policy was working there" and to look at the courtroom facility designed to allow real-time censorship during the trials.

While Blunt said he could not reveal some of what he saw, he confirmed that he viewed the courtroom and adjacent rooms for the media that include a technical system to allow military censorship of sensitive or classified information.

"There's enough of a delay [in the sound system] that any top-secret information that shouldn't be made public would be able to be held back from the reporting on that trial," said Blunt. He contended that the arrangement "provides maximum opportunity for the defendants to produce whatever information they want in the courtroom, but also provides maximum opportunity for the trial to be reported."

In the phone call with reporters, Blunt said he continued to believe that Gitmo is "the right place to detain these prisoners ... and the military tribunals are the best [option] for all concerned -- for taxpayers, for the defendants and for the public. This location is specifically designed for trials that could involve issues of national security and ... without allowing for things to be said [in public] that would be disruptive of the security of the country."

Given Gitmo's security, Blunt said he felt strongly that the two Iraqi citizens arrested and indicted May 31 in Bowling Green, Ky., should be there for trial by a military tribunal. But a Justice Department spokesman told news organizations on Tuesday that prosecuting the two men in U.S. federal court is the better option. Hundreds of defendants have been tried and convicted of terrorism-related crimes in the U.S. federal court system since 9/11, he said, and the department spokesman said no judicial district had been hit by terrorist retaliation.

The Justice Department said there have been no prosecutions by military commissions of terror suspects arrested on American soil. The two men have pleaded not guilty to separate charges: One Iraqi national allegedly carried out numerous improvised explosive device (IED) attacks against U.S. troops in Iraq and the other man is alleged to have taken part in the insurgency in Iraq.

An attorney for one suspect told the Associated Press that both men were legally in this country and should have the same rights as anyone else residing legally here. "There simply is no exception to that, nor do we expect one for our citizens overseas," the attorney said. "It's a two-way street. You've got to be careful when you go there."

But Blunt said he worried about possible retaliatory attacks against federal judges or jury members if the two suspects would be tried in this country. "Frankly, no judge or jury -- in Bowling Green, Ky., or anywhere in Missouri, if the situation was in our state -- should run the future risk of becoming a needless target of terrorist activity because they participated in a trial involving terrorists and actions they created as a result of war," Blunt said.

Rob Koenig is an award-winning journalist and author. He worked at the STL Beacon until 2013.