WASHINGTON -- South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R) arrived on Capitol Hill for a House hearing Thursday morning with a long list of reasons why she will never allow Guantanamo Bay detainees to be transferred to the Naval Consolidated Brig in Charleston, South Carolina.
It’s “the city we call the holy city,” “the number one vacation spot in the country,” “the friendliest state in the union,” “the most patriotic state in the Union,” Haley told members of the House Oversight and Management Efficiency Subcommittee. “Why would anyone want to put terrorists in Charleston?”
The South Carolina governor then switched to a more somber note. “We looked hate in the eye last year,” she said, referring to the shooting by a white gunman, who killed nine people at a historic black church in Charleston. “Our state is still recovering from that.”
Homeland Security Committee ranking member Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), a black lawmaker who has been outspoken about calling the Charleston shooting an act of domestic terrorism -- a term Haley has also used to describe the attack -- jumped at the chance to point out a contradiction in her logic.
“Can you, just for the record, tell me who has custody of the young man charged with killing the people at Mother Emanuel?” Thompson asked, referring to the church where the shooting occurred.
“He’s in South Carolina,” Haley responded.
“Do you know where? Is he in Charleston? Is he in Sumter?” probed Thompson.
“He’s in Charleston,” Haley said.
Thompson asked if that arrangement posed any security issues to the people of Charleston.
Haley said it had not but implied that Thompson’s comparison missed the point. “It’s a constant reminder of what happened ... no one wants him there,” she said. “We just don’t want 80 more coming to Charleston. Dealing with one has shaken the state enough.”
In February, President Barack Obama announced the vague outlines of a long-anticipated plan to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility. His plan involves sending as many of the 80 prisoners as possible to other countries, and transferring the remaining group of people, who will either be charged with a crime, or are considered too dangerous to release, to an undisclosed facility in the U.S.
Of the 80 prisoners still at Guantanamo, 26 are approved for transfer, meaning the number of detainees that could be sent stateside will likely be closer to 54 individuals.
Congressional restrictions currently outlaw the transfer of any Guantanamo detainees to the U.S. and the Obama administration has not specified where it envisions sending the prisoners. But the Pentagon has reviewed military facilities and federal prisons in South Carolina, Kansas and Colorado as potential sites.
The governors of all three states, including Democratic governor of Colorado John Hickenlooper, are adamantly opposed to transferring Guantanamo prisoners to sites within their states. Haley said on Thursday that the Obama administration “could pay the state of South Carolina to host these terrorists and we wouldn’t take them for any amount of money.”
Throughout the hearing, Haley argued that the presence of Guantanamo detainees at the consolidated Naval Brig in Charleston would scare away business owners interested in investing in her state and terrify parents who send their children to schools in the area. In the years following the Sept. 11 attacks, her state housed former Guantanamo detainee Yaser Hamdi and Jose Padilla, a U.S. citizen later convicted of plotting a terror attack with al Qaeda. Haley rejected the comparison to past precedents and said the current situation is different because of the timing and the number of potential prisoners.
But toward the end of the questioning from lawmakers, Haley offered another reason to keep Guantanamo prisons in the offshore prison in Cuba -- and it's a reason that most public officials prefer to leave unsaid.
“Why do we want to put them on American soil?” Haley asked. “What sort of rights are they now going to have? We’ve watched the Supreme Court totally start to go down that slippery slope. We’ve dealt with the habeas corpus issues. We’ve dealt with all that. So now, what rights are we going to say that they’re going to have because they are now are on U.S. soil?"
This story has been updated to include that South Carolina also housed former Guantanamo detainee Yaser Hamdi.