WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. Rand Paul's frustration was palpable as he pressed Homeland Security officials during a hearing Wednesday on how suspected terrorists have been able to slip through the nation's security net and live in 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 live for several years in Paul's hometown of Bowling Green.
Paul said he thinks the Obama administration's lax and arbitrary screening process of Iraqi nationals has potentially put the nation at risk.
"It's like finding a needle in a haystack," Paul said of tracking suspected terrorists. "You gotta make the haystack smaller."
Department of Homeland Security officials acknowledged at the hearing that the Bowling Green case highlighted gaps in the screening process and said they have been corrected.
In many ways, Paul's concerns echo the broader national security worries of the state's senior senator, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a strident and vocal critic of the administration's stymied efforts to close the Guantánamo Bay prison.
The Kentucky Republicans' two-pronged effort to highlight what they see as holes in how the Obama administration deals with terrorists is turning up the political heat on a thorny issue for the White House.
The Senate hearing also explored how fingerprint database gaffes and visa fraud have further complicated tracking terrorists who travel and live in the United States. It came on the heels of McCon nell'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 Bowling Green 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 Guantánamo is the only way to be certain there won't be retaliatory attacks, McConnell said.
On Sunday, McConnell turned up the volume on his critique of the Obama administration's policies when he used the not-guilty verdict in the Casey Anthony case as an example of issues with the civilian court system. Anthony's 2-year-old daughter, Caylee, was found dead in 2008.
"These are not American citizens," McConnell said on Fox News Sunday of the 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. 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 Guantánamo 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 thinks the two accused terrorists should be tried in civilian court.
"The politics of this issue have drawn the Guantánamo 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 Guantánamo, and the president's policy commitments to closing it are making it impossible to bring anyone into Guantánamo," Waxman said.
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."
Holder said there was no more powerful tool than the civilian court system in disrupting potential attacks and interrogating, prosecuting and incarcerating terrorists.
As originally conceived, Guantánamo was not so much designed for terrorism suspects captured in the United States or for U.S. nationals. It was for foreign terrorists captured abroad, said Bradford Berenson, a 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."