Barrett presses rivals on detainee issue

Housing of terrorism suspects injected into race for governor

joconnor@thestate.comNovember 5, 2009 

Congressman Gresham Barrett answers questions during a GOP debate at the Newberry Opera House.

C. ALUKA BERRY/CABERRY@THESTATE.COM

U.S. Rep. Gresham Barrett found out Wednesday his Republican rivals for governor are willing to disagree even when they agree on an issue - housing terrorism suspects in Charleston.

And a Democratic opponent was blunt and coarse in rejecting Barrett's plea to oppose the transfer, telling the Upstate congressman to take the letter he planned to write to President Obama and "shove it."

It's one year before South Carolinians head to the polls to elect a new governor. Wednesday's tussle over how the state should oppose the possibility of housing terrorism suspects in South Carolina was perhaps the first sign of how heated the race for governor will be over the next 12 months.

Tuesday Barrett called on nine fellow gubernatorial candidates to sign a letter to President Barack Obama opposing the transfer of any of the more than 200 terror suspects housed at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to a naval brig outside of Charleston. Obama has pledged to close the base but has yet to decide when or what will happen to the Iraq and Afghanistan war detainees held at Guantanamo.

U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, a military lawyer who has tried to work closely with the White House on detainee issues, criticized Obama for announcing plans to close the Guantanamo Bay military prison before developing a comprehensive plan for handling the suspects.

"Quite frankly, the president screwed this up," Graham said.

Housing detainees waiting for military trials, Barrett argued, put state residents at risk of a terrorist attack. The request sparked a flurry of press statements.

The strongest response came from Mullins McLeod, a Charleston Democrat seeking the gubernatorial nomination, who told Barrett to "take your letter and shove it."

"No one wants suspected terrorists on our soil while they await their richly deserved punishment," McLeod wrote. "But when the President asks us to do our part in the international war on terrorism, the only appropriate response from this or any state's Governor is 'Yes Sir, Mr. President.'"

Likewise, GOP rivals Lexington state Rep. Nikki Haley and Attorney General Henry McMaster argued Barrett, as a member of Congress, had more effective ways to oppose the transfer.

Both Haley and McMaster agreed to sign the letter.

"Calling on candidates for governor to join you in a letter to President Obama," Haley said in a statement, "rather than asking your colleagues in Congress - who are actually in a position to prevent this potentially dangerous situation - to do the same, strikes me as little more than political grandstanding."

McMaster chided Barrett for acting as if the pending transfer was a surprise.

"Congress should have taken action on this issue long ago. National security is a federal issue," McMaster said.

Spokesman B.J. Boling said Barrett has introduced three bills to block the transfer.

"We certainly appreciate Rep. Haley's willingness to stand with Congressman Barrett in his fight to keep terrorists from setting foot on South Carolina soil," Boling said, urging Haley to call on Congress to pass the bills.

McLeod, Boling said, wants South Carolina to become an "international repository for terrorists."

"Mr. McLeod's response shows he is more interested in rhetoric than reality, and the reality is that should President Obama choose to transfer known terrorists to our state, our citizens will become even more of a target for terrorism. That is simply unacceptable," Boling said.

Graham said he's filed an amendment to an appropriations bill to block the transfer of terrorism suspects. Graham aides said the amendment could be voted on in the Senate as early as today.

Reach O'Connor at (803) 771-8358.

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