Thom Tillis in Cuba to visit Guantanamo Bay prison camp

U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, seen here during his time in the North Carolina legislature, visited Guantanamo Bay in Cuba on Friday.
U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, seen here during his time in the North Carolina legislature, visited Guantanamo Bay in Cuba on Friday. cseward@newsobserver.com

Sen. Thom Tillis was in Cuba on Friday to visit the prison camp at the U.S. Navy base in Guantanamo Bay.

Tillis, of North Carolina, was one of five first-year Republican U.S. senators on the Senate Armed Services Committee on the trip.

The others are Sens. Joni Ernst of Iowa, James Lankford of Oklahoma, Mike Rounds of South Dakota and Tom Cotton of Arkansas. Tillis’ office announced the trip and promised details after they get back.

Dustin Walker, a spokesman for the Senate Armed Services Committee, said it’s typical for committee members to visit Guantanamo at least once. The prison camp was set up to hold suspected terrorists the U.S. seized after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Tillis didn’t disclose his views on what to do with the Guantanamo prison when the committee held a hearing on it last month, but Cotton did.

“We should be sending more terrorists there for further interrogation to keep this country safe,” Cotton said. “As far as I’m concerned, every last one of them can rot in hell. But as long as they don’t do that, they can rot in Guantanamo Bay.”

Cotton is the hawkish former 101st Airborne Division member who wrote a letter to Iran’s leaders – signed by him and 46 other Republican senators, including Tillis and North Carolina’s senior senator, Richard Burr – claiming that if international negotiators reach a nuclear agreement with Iran, it probably wouldn’t survive once President Barack Obama left office.

During the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Guantanamo in February, Brian McKeon, principal deputy under secretary of defense for policy, told senators that the prisoner population has gone down from 242 men when Obama took office six years ago to 122.

Among the current detainees, 10 are being prosecuted or have been sentenced, 54 are eligible for transfer, and 58 are being reviewed in a periodic review process, which determines whether their detention is “still permissible,” he said.

McKeon said the administration knew there was a risk to release them, “and we try to potentially mitigate the risk, and I think we’ve had some success in doing that.

“But we believe there’s a risk in keeping Guantanamo open,” he added. “The military leadership of the country has said that. You have the letter from three dozen former military leaders who think it is a propaganda tool that inspires recruitment of additional terrorists.”

Obama appealed to Congress once again in his most recent State of the Union speech, in January, to let him close it.

Email: rschoof@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @reneeschoof