WASHINGTON — Sen. Rand Paul pressed Homeland Security officials during a hearing Wednesday on how suspected terrorists have been able to slip through the nation's security net and get into the United States.
Paul was especially concerned about how, despite fingerprints linking one of them to a roadside bomb, two Iraqi nationals were able to able to get into the United States and live for several years in Bowling Green, Ky.
"It's like finding a needle in a haystack," Paul said. "You gotta make the haystack smaller."
In many ways, Paul's concerns echo the broader national security concerns of Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a strident and vocal critic of the administration's stymied efforts to close the Guantanamo Bay prison. The two Kentucky Republicans are turning up the political heat on a broader and more thorny issue for the White House: how the administration deals with suspected terrorists.
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Department of Homeland Security officials acknowledged Wednesday that the Bowling Green case highlighted gaps in the screening process that have since been corrected.
The Senate hearing came on the heels of McConnell's heated back-and-forth with U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder over plans to keep the two accused terrorists in the United States to stand trial in federal court.
Waad Ramadan Alwan, 30, and Mohanad Shareef Hammadi, 23, were arrested in May on charges of plotting to send arms to their home country to be used against U.S. troops.
They pleaded not guilty and could face life in prison if convicted in federal court. Sending the two men to Guantanamo is the only way to be certain there won't be retaliatory attacks, McConnell said.
On Sunday, McConnell critiqued the Obama administration's policies when he used the not-guilty verdict in the Caylee Anthony case as an example of problems with the civilian court system.
"These are not American citizens," McConnell said on Fox News Sunday of accused terrorists. "We just found with the Caylee Anthony case how difficult it is to get a conviction in a U.S. court.
"I don't think a foreigner is entitled to all the protections in the Bill of Rights," he said. "They should not be in U.S. courts and before military commissions."
Social justice advocates bristle at McConnell's assertions.
"No one has ever complained that the system was inadequate until Guantanamo turned our notions of fairness and justice upside down," said David Remes, an attorney with Appeal for Justice, a human rights and civil liberties law practice.
Paul differs from McConnell in that he believes the two accused terrorists should be tried in a civilian court.
For his part, Holder, in a speech at the American Constitution Society convention last month, was sharply critical of "some in Congress" who "claim that utilizing our civilian court system — as we have for more than 200 years — would somehow jeopardize public safety."
"The politics of this issue have drawn the Guantanamo knot even tighter than it was when President Obama came to office," said Matthew Waxman, a professor at Columbia Law School and a former George W. Bush administration-era Pentagon adviser on detention issues. "Congressional Republicans are making it almost impossible to take anyone out of Guantanamo and the President's policy commitments to closing it are making it impossible to bring anyone into Guantanamo."
As originally conceived, Guantanamo was not so much designed for terrorism suspects captured in the United States or for U.S. nationals. It was originally conceived for foreign terrorists captured abroad, said Bradford Berenson, a former White House legal advisor during the George W. Bush administration.
"Even the most hawkish Bush administration officials would never argue and did never argue that civilian courts should not be used," Berenson said. "They simply argued that military courts should be available and used where appropriate."
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