By Colby Itkowitz of the Morning Call
On the same day President Barack Obama said he is suspending the transfer of Yemeni terrorism suspects held at Guantanamo Bay, U.S. Rep. Charlie Dent announced he'll visit the internationally reviled prison camp to gather information on whether it should be closed.
The Lehigh Valley Republican inserted himself in the debate over its closure last January, when Obama announced plans to release or transfer its detainees. Dent called the plan ''ill-advised'' and said then he was convinced that keeping the Cuba-based prison open was best for national security.
''I, for one, sleep well at night knowing that these dangerous terrorists are detained at Guantanamo Bay instead of somewhere in the United States,'' Dent, who represents the 15th District, wrote in October for a Capitol Hill newspaper.
On Tuesday, Obama reiterated his determination to close the prison after calling the attempted bombing of a Northwest jetliner on Christmas Day a ''failure'' of intelligence. However, the president said he would not send the camp's Yemeni prisoners back to Yemen as planned after recent reports that Guantanamo detainees released in 2007 may have been involved in the airliner plot.
As a senior Republican on the House of Representative's Homeland Security Committee, Dent said he's been requesting a bipartisan congressional visit to Guantanamo for nearly a year. Dent said he plans to gather information to confirm, or allay, his security concerns.
The suddenly timely trip offers Dent an opportunity to assert leadership on a hot-button issue in a tough election year.
''For Congressman Dent to define himself as a leader in Congress on matters of national security would be a nice branding for him in terms of his re-election bid,'' said Christopher Borick, a political science professor at Muhlenberg College in Allentown. ''This isn't something he just jumped on in the last few weeks for political points. This is one of the policy areas where he can claim a legitimate role.''
Bethlehem Mayor John Callahan, a Democrat who wants Dent's job, declined Tuesday to say whether he thinks Guantanamo should be closed, saying he does not have enough information. Callahan said he supports Obama's decision to halt sending prisoners back to Yemen.
Since February, Dent has asked permission from the Democratic majority in Congress to allow a delegation of federal lawmakers to visit the Guantanamo Bay facility. He only recently got word he was going as part of that group. For security reasons, officials are not disclosing the travel dates.
Dent believes the trip will inform lawmakers what exactly it takes to secure a terrorist camp and move one to the United States. ''We all need to better understand how to manage Gitmo where it is,'' Dent said. ''We want to go with our eyes wide open.''
Obama, who campaigned on the promise of closing Guantanamo, has called the facility a ''sad chapter in America's history.'' It has been intensely scrutinized after reports that prisoners have been physically abused and allegations of other human rights violations.
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