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Rep. Brian Bilbray Discusses Gitmo Detainees, Border Violence

Rep. Brian Bilbray Discusses Gitmo Detainees, Border Violence
Should terror detainees be moved from the prison at Guantanamo Bay to sites throughout the U.S., like the brigs at Camp Pendleton and the Miramar Marine Corps Air Station? We speak to Congressman Brian Bilbray about the proposal to move the terror suspects. We also speak to Bilbray about border violence, the economy, and healthcare reform.

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: When Congressman Brian Bilbray first served in the House of Representatives in the 1990's, he was part of a Republican majority. This time, as a representative of the 50th Congressional District, there are a lot more Democrats in the House. And Congressman Bilbray has been speaking out against many of the policies promoted by both Congressional Democrats and the Obama administration. One issue that he's been particularly vocal on is the proposed relocation of Guantanamo Bay detainees to prison facilities on the U.S. mainland. Representative Brian Bilbray is a member of the House committees on veteran affairs, oversight and science and technology and I welcome Congressman Bilbray on the phone. We are expecting him to arrive at the These Days studios but he has been delayed. Thank you for taking the call, Congressman.


BRIAN BILBRAY: No problem. I apologize. We still are struggling with traffic congestion today in North County

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Yes indeed we are. Well I want to tell our audience that if you have question or comment for Congressman Brian Bilbray we invite you to join the conversation. Here's how you can do it: call 1-888-895-5727, 1-888-895-KPBS. Now Congressman Bilbray, I've seen you on a cable talk show lately opposing the relocation of Guantánamo Bay detainees. Could you tell us your main argument against the plant to shut down that facility?

BRIAN BILBRAY: Well the first argument is sort of a bipartisan concern that there is no plan, no explanation and both Democrats and Republicans basically told the administration we don't believe that it's prudent or appropriate for Congress to issue money for a program that has not been explained or has not been articulated and has not even been developed yet. So, the number one issue is that there’s no plan. Second of all we need to talk about what are the repercussions of bringing foreign nationals onto US soil and how does that affect the vested rights and procedures for these individuals as opposed to keeping them overseas and off-site. And those of us that have operated and supervised detention facilities like I have as a county supervisor know that there is a whole lot of details here that somebody like the new president or the vice president may not know because they've never been responsible for the operation of a detention facility.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now let's break this down if we can. If there were a plan, a good plan to move those detainees from Guantánamo to maximum security prisons in the US would you be in favor of closing down Guantánamo?

BRIAN BILBRAY: Not necessarily, unless the plan explained where it's going to go, how much it's going to cost and is it the most cost effective way and the safest way to handle it. But we don't even have a plan to be able to even judge that. And I think that the other issue that everyone has agreed with is that even the most adamant opponents of Guantánamo understand that it is probably one of the newest, most modern, most secure facilities in the world and even human rights activists say that this facility is very well laid out from the detention point of view.


MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, even having said that, a host of Pentagon officials, including Defense Secretary Robert Gates are saying that Gitmo is being used as a public relations weapon against us and for that reason it should be closed down. What do you say to that?

BRIAN BILBRAY: You also have the FBI director Mr. Miracle, who says that it is the most secure facility that we could ever have for this and you can say it’s for public relations and you're right. That is a concern. It’s really this balanced of is the public relations aspect of Guantánamo more important than the national security and the procedural issues and the conflict recognition. That is the big conflict going in to it. How high do you rate Republic relations as opposed to substantive operational issues?

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: It seems just a while ago there was a consensus, a bipartisan consensus. George W. Bush wanted to close Guantánamo, John McCain wanted to close Guantánamo and now there seems to be this resistance to this idea. Where did that come from Congressman?

BRIAN BILBRAY: I think it comes down to the reality that there’s good intentions. It would be a nice thing to do. We would like to do it. Let's make it a goal. And now we are at the point of, OK now let's explain how we are going to do it, where these people are going to go, what are going to be the repercussions of movement and what is going to be the cost of it. So now it is the reality of our intentions that we have to confront and those are things that have to be answered as we approach them.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: What, is there any other idea for what to do with the people being detained at Guantánamo Bay?

BRIAN BILBRAY: Yeah, there is discussion, everything from bringing them into Miramar, bringing them into Pendleton, bringing them into Kansas, to sending them back to other countries especially in the Middle East. And so there is a whole lot of different proposals that may be considered in this plan which may be totally acceptable and very cost effective but that has to be, those are questions that need to be answered before you say go for it. Before you start allocating money for a project you don't even have a blueprint for.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: We are taking your calls for Congressman Brian Bilbray. The number is 1-888-895-5727, and we do have a caller on the line but we will wait to take that call, I've been told. Okay, let's move on if we can, Congressman. Border violence. What do you see as the main causes of the recent increase along the US-Mexico border. And I just have to tell you Brian Bilbray has now entered the These Days studio.

BRIAN BILBRAY: Seamless Transitions.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: It's lovely to see you Congressman, thank you so much and thank you for taking the time. I know it was difficult for you to answer those questions while running in here on the phone. So is there anything you'd like to say about the whole Guantánamo Bay detainee situation that you weren't able to think about while you were running down the hall

BRIAN BILBRAY: Well look, the fact is is that this is all part of a learning process the new administration is going through. You've got a young president that has never administered any programs like this before, never been a mayor, a governor, whatever. So there is a learning curve of knowing what you'd like to do and want to do, but then having to learn that things aren’t as easy and aren't as simple as they may look like when you're outside. And I think he's learned that with, like, the war in Iraq. I'm sure he did not try to misrepresent himself when he said I’m going to shut down the war and get people out of there. Now that he’s president he realized that things are a lot more complicated. And I think anybody would say that. Anybody who's been a parent will say, “When I have kids I’m going to do this, this and this” and the kids come along and the reality shock comes in. I think the president is now going through that process and this is part of the change. This is part of having a young man move into a new job and we are just going to need to work this. But we also need to expect that procedure and proper management needs to be done and that's why you have Congress. That's why the president is not a dictator. He has to work with Congress and both Democrats and Republicans said, stop, show us how you're going to do it and explain it and then when you do that we will consider sending you money.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I guess, you know, just to reiterate, I think that what's confusing to a lot of people is that this seemed to be a settled issue. That it was probably a bad idea for the United States to maintain detainees in Guantánamo Bay. Because of the history of the place, because of what it means around the world and to shut that place down and move those people into secure facilities in the United States seemed to be something that most people agreed on and now there seems to be this fractious debate over it.

BRIAN BILBRAY: Well, because you had the public relations problem and everybody was seeing it from the public relations problem. Now that we are down to the implementation side of it, now we get the details of what it takes to do it and now the negatives of moving, or the challenges of trying to execute that good intention always runs into it. You run into reality when you get into this. We don't know that Miranda rights were not read to anybody. Does that give them a vested interest? I think we're going to learn by prosecuting a few of these guys and seeing what kind of details before we bring hundreds of them onto US soil. There may be options. We’ve only got two other countries that say they will take one person. These are things we haven't talked about before. So this is all part of the process. This is why the Republic is designed the way it is.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I’m Speaking with Congressman Brian Bilbray and we do have a caller on the line. Bob is in El Cajon. Good morning Bob.

CALLER 1: Yeah, good morning. You know what? I can't see why not move them up here to Pendleton. That would be a good place for them. You think those Marines are going to let them people get away and do anything harm? Do you know what the Marines are like? That would be a heck of a good place for them. They would be secured and they would be surrounded.

BRIAN BILBRAY: Well Bob, I don't know if you remember but in ‘06 we actually had foreign nationals detained at Miramar and thought that it wasn’t going to be a big deal and then remember the big riots. And there was a, basically it was shut down, the whole operation was shut down because the facility was not designed for it and things didn't work out. So that's all we are saying is, don't think things are this simple. By the way, you’ve got to remember that with this population you've got a whole different situation. Our prisons and our jails here are designed to keep people in. We have learned from history that you also with the terrorists have to keep people out because you actually can have armed insurgents go after that. Then there is an issue that we don't talk about a lot but one of the things we've done with Guantánamo is make sure that there is not a public record of who is working at Guantánamo because of the risk and the threat to family members. That whole, these are all issues that we don't talk about a lot but have to be considered before we get into this. And the Marines that can defend themselves in Miramar and Camp Pendleton, but remember there are family members and there are connections there that we don't think about when we talk about the operation of a county facility or state facility that we have to consider with this.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Does that satisfy you Bob?

CALLER 1: If you put them on Miramar, well yeah then that's too close civilization. If you put them on Pendleton out there, look at where that’s at. It’s way out there. Sure you've got people living there but it’s way out there and you've got a lot of territory there. I can't see anything wrong with it.

BRIAN BILBRAY: Just to remind you that Pendleton and Miramar are right in the middle of one of the largest metropolitan areas in the world where, right now, you have a facility that’s surrounded on three sides by the Caribbean and on one side by communist Cuba got into it, and that's one of those things. You were actually making a transition into the border violence issue.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: We have so many people who want to talk to you about Gitmo. Suzanne is in La Jolla, and Suzanne, good morning. You are on These Days.

CALLER 2: Yes, good morning. I had a question about the kind of people that have been held at Guantánamo. I guess I am wondering if they have been prosecuted or are they all guilty, are they innocent, how many have been tortured and it's really the question (inaudible). Not in my backyard. And who wants a tortured foreigner to move into our city who feels wronged by us and what can we do with these people? Can each state say that they would be willing to take a few and help them transition into our way of life, or can each country say that they would be willing to take a few? I mean, it is in our backyard and we all have to be, feel responsible for how we treated these people and how they were wronged and what we can do with, work with this new administration to make it right.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Suzanne thank you for the question.

BRIAN BILBRAY: Okay, let's clarify that we are talking about a population where one in seven has been released already, is back actively engaged in terrorism. Some may say, oh we created this environment by detaining them. But I think most experts will say that wasn't the reality. The fact is that we probably released more than we should have and this is one of those tough things that you get to. The documentation I've seen with the enhanced interrogation issue was three individuals. Let's just be up front about this. This isn't hundreds of people. This is three individuals. People that actually said we know something you don't know. We've got information that's going to cost you thousands of lives and you can't do anything about it. That is a whole different situation where somebody has actually taunted, flaunted that they had information and that ended up triggering procedures that I don't think a lot of us like. But this is not an issue of these detainees being, falling in that category. This is general population. These are prisoners of war who violated the Geneva Convention by not having uniform. So that's why they are called enemy combatants. And in most procedures, a lot of times these people in the old days might have been taken out and shot. I don't purport that and support that but I think these are processes we have to work through and it's very, very complicated.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I think you've stated your case on Guantánamo Bay and let's move on, because our time is kind of short here and we have a lot of issues to cover. I do want to talk about the border and the increase in border violence along the US-Mexico border, and I saw you interviewed about the border recently. You seemed encouraged by the new attention given to this problem by the Obama administration, but I'm wondering what you see can be done now to help Mexico fight this drug war cartel.

BRIAN BILBRAY: I think it was one thing, especially as the chairman of the Immigration Reform Caucus and somebody who grew up on the frontier I have an obligation to sort of really try to let Washington know what we know here and that is the whole border region has been ignored and there has been a game of perception being more important than reality. Right now Mexico is fighting for its life and we have a vested interest in what happens south of the border. And frankly it's like Bush was shocked when I said, anything I can do to help with the (Mirda) initiative and he said, why? And I said because I'd rather win this battle in the streets of Tijuana than San Diego. Much like FDR said we must help our friends win the war rather than wait for it to get to us. And I think this is one that, Calderon is brave and that’s the reason why things have gotten so ugly lately is that he is brave enough now to finally lance this boil and open it up that we need to clean out this problem. And we have an opportunity in the next 24 months for the new president to be able to address that and this guy is extraordinarily brave. I just can't imagine what I would feel if I was in his position with my children and the exposure there. So I think that we really need to support him and understand the opposition party is already talking about, PRI is already talking about negotiating with the cartels. That is a scary, scary concept. So, I guess in all fairness what we are seeing in Mexico is much like what we saw in Iraq with the so-called surge, that when you take the added effort, when you go in and try to clean out the problem there is going to be more violence in the short term. But it is a step that has to be taken somewhere down the line and I think Calderon is really taking the action we need and we should be supporting him.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: We have to take a short break and when we return I'll continue the conversation with Congressman Brian Bilbray and we will be taking your calls, as many calls as we can when These Days returns in just a few minutes.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Welcome back, I am Maureen Cavanaugh and this is These Days. You are listening to KPBS and my guest is Congressman Brian Bilbray. We are taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. We just started talking about the border and of course phone lines have lit up and a lot of people want to get in on the conversation. Let me speak with Enrique. He is, I believe, speaking on the phone on I-5. And Enrique, welcome to These Days.

CALLER 3: Thank you and am actually on my way to meet some Mexican diplomats in Los Angeles as we speak and Brian was the former spokesperson for the Federation of American Immigration Reform, which is a hate group as classified by the Southern Poverty Law Center, sponsored in part by the Pioneer Fund, which believes in eugenics, the creation of a superior white race. And I assure you that Brian Bilbray is no friend of Mexico and to be talking about immigration and these types of politics of fear and deception is not welcome it is not healthy. What we need to is, the drug problem is a huge problem. It’s driven by the demand of the American market which consumes half of the world's illegal drugs. There's no legal way for people to cross into the country right now, people that are lower on the economic scale and we need to have really progressive, honest people working in Congress and not people like Brian Bilbray which like to promote the politics of fear and deception, which, as the former spokesperson for The Federation of American Immigration Reform, a hate group that was promoting these politics as the spokesperson. So I think it’s shameful that we have people like this in the Congress. I believe in free speech, but I don't believe in being the person that goes up there and yells fire and starts the fire.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Enrique, lets give the congressman a chance to respond. Thank you for your call.

BRIAN BILBRAY: Well, I think Enrique makes my point better than anything else, that the person spreading the hate and speaking and attacking. Enrique basically articulated a position of intimidation, lack of appreciation of free speech. The fact is, I work with all the countries in Latin America as much as possible, especially Mexico and Central America and maybe Enrique ought to come down and meet with us when we meet with the ambassadors, when I meet with the parliament. I don't think that in American society attacking somebody because they disagree with you is enlightened or progressive. I think that is probably the definition of hate speech. So, Enrique, I just have to say, think twice. You make your living attacking people and attacking positions and as somebody who not only grew up on the border, I'm probably the only member of Congress that rescued illegal immigrants when they were drowning. I've recovered their bodies. I see the carnage down along the border and I wish a lot of people like Enrique was around in the 80s when were trying to point out when more people die every year trying to come into this country illegally than were killed in the Oklahoma explosion. Where was the outcry in the 80s and 90s when nobody wanted to be bothered?

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I wonder though, Congressman, is associating yourself with kind of hard-core anti-immigration groups, doesn't that lesson your credibility when you speak about a really healthy and good relationship with Mexico and trying to deal with their, our mutual problems?

BRIAN BILBRAY: First of all hard-core anti-immigration, I am the son of an immigrant. My mother was an immigrant from Australia. Those of us that are a product of legal immigration take real offense at people not drawing a very clear and defined line between legal and illegal. And I think that just because there are people that want cheap illegal labor to be able to exploit doesn't mean that it's justifiable to continue this mixing. And frankly as the son of a legal immigrant, I resent people like Enrique who tried to hide illegal activity behind our great tradition of legal, measured and moderate immigration policies.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Let me take another call. Mila, I believe, is in Pacific Beach. Good morning, Mila. Welcome to These Days.

CALLER 4: Good morning. I wondered if Brian considered withdrawing from the Congress after he belonged to a party that brought this country to economic bankruptcy and all the policy that created nothing but hate and (inaudible) around the world. He's been at it for a long time, and as a matter of fact as part of the economic crisis I got unemployed last year. I sent him an e-mail. I needed some help with it. He never responded. I wonder if he should consider resigning. Thank you.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Thank you, Mila, for those comments.

BRIAN BILBRAY: When I left Congress in 2000 we had a balanced budget. We had a huge surplus. Granted, while I was gone there was 9/11. The nation went under war. I think the\at both Democrats and Republicans, especially Republicans are responsible for abandoning the concept of budget responsibility by using the war on terror as an excuse to try to buy political power with taxpayers monies on domestic issues. So, I agree with you that the party was very much failed and that's why I decided to come back into the fray, because I think they had abandoned the things that all of us had worked for. We’d been severely attacked in the 90s over trying to balance a budget but finally Bill Clinton and the Republicans in those days got together for the good of the country and we worked it out. And I think Bush, the Republicans and the Democrats during the oughts, as they say it, the early part of the oughts, abandoned that concept. And I hold guys like the Republican leader, that DeLay responsible for thinking that just because the Democrats kept in power by buying votes with taxpayer money that the republicans ought to try it and I think people were frustrated with the Republicans because they were acting like most parties do when they get in power. They start being abusive.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, Congressman, you voted against the stimulus package, the economic stimulus package, along with all the other Republicans in the House and I'm wondering, we are starting to see some positive signs in the economy. Do you still think that was a good vote?

BRIAN BILBRAY: Absolutely. Look I was a mayor when I was 27. I ran, I was a county supervisor of a County of 3 million people. There was no way I would have allowed a city manager to give me a piece of legislation or a budget 10 minutes before midnight and then expect me to start debate at nine and vote on it at 12. As somebody that could hire and fire, I wouldn't allow them to push me into voting on something that nobody got to read. Even Bob Filner, a good friend of mine, but Bob voted for it, even Bob said it was outrageous the things that were stuck in there and that he was asked by his leadership to trust them. And that's where, remember the AIG, this is where the big pay raises and the bonuses for the executives at AIG go in. There's a lot of this kind of thing. So to me it was even beyond the contact, was the whole process that we had a law, a regulation in Congress that you don't ever do this faster than 48 hours. And this attitude of having to vote for something now was used by Bush to get the bank bailout through and then you have the new administration trying the same techniques and I'm sorry, those of us in Congress we have a responsibility for a prudent procedure. And trying to use crisis as an excuse to abandon all your standards, you need to vote right. And frankly I think a lot of you've seen a lot of people that voted for that bill that really feel bad about it.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You know I just have to mention that awful lot of critics say it’s exactly what happened with the Patriot Bill, that they used a crisis to vote against…

BRIAN BILBRAY: But you did not do it, you did not do it in a matter of less than 12 hours. Even when we were under attack we did not say, you have to vote for this right now. And in all fairness to the Democrats, when the Republicans were in control on the bank bailout you had the same kind of argument. So, this whole thing of, don't read it, you don't have time to read it, just vote for it and a lot of people are regretting how much is in this bill that was thrown in and it ended up being a grab bag of a whole lot of other things thrown in. And frankly like Bob Filner said, he said that if he, he really regretted trusting his leadership at that time. So both sides are wrong in these kinds of games

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: We are kind of up against the clock. So I’m going to be firing a couple things that you, if you don't mind. Because after another nuclear test fire, North Korea is now threatening to attack US or South Korean ships and because they're such a big Navy Marine presence here in San Diego that really means something to us. So, I wonder what you think the US response should be to that threat.

BRIAN BILBRAY: I think right now we need to get together with China and Russia, Japan. We've got to isolate this country. I think that you're going to, you see that finally the whole world sort of uniting around this issue. Sadly, the UN has never been effective at this. Ever since Korea and Somalia, Bosnia, they passed resolutions. But this is a point to where we need to work with both sides, both past enemies and past friends and make sure that we recognize the whole world community agrees that North Korea has to be called down on this, because if you don't do it here you are setting an example for other countries to become rogue countries and not participate in the family of nations.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I know that the Senate is the body that gets to confirm a Supreme Court nominee, but I'm just wondering what your take is on Judge Sonia Sotomayor.

BRIAN BILBRAY: I think she's kind of exciting as somebody that comes from, you know, like her, I come from the wrong side of the tracks. Not that Imperial Beach is the Bronx, but I think there’s experience there. But I think there is concern about her stating that policy is developed by appellate judges. As a legislator could I would call her down and say wait a minute, the Constitution says legislators make policy, not judges. So I think she's going to have to answer for that statement. But I think there's no doubt that she's going to be confirmed. I think she is not, as I think a lot of Republicans are saying, she is an extremist. I think she's not as extreme as the other lady on the Supreme Court. But the fact is that she is going to go there and like you said, I have authority over the budget, but I have no more authority over her appointment then you do. So we will be able to watch here. But I think she's going to be confirmed very quickly and move right into it and I think she’s ready to do it.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And Congressman Bilbray, I wanted to give you a chance to talk about your Lake Hodges Water Reclamation Act because I know that you were particularly happy that that got bipartisan support in the House.

BRIAN BILBRAY: Absolutely. I mean, what we’ve done is we’ve tried to help the local community basically utilize a natural resource, water, and do it an environmentally responsible way. And the fact is, is that this is a federal government helped create this problem. We didn’t mean to, but with the implementation of the Endangered Species Act because when the lake went down, we had willow habitat grow in on those river beds and then when it came back up, and you couldn’t clear it off because it was now (inaudible) habitat. So the federal government didn't allow it to be cleaned out. When the water raised back up it all got flooded out. All the habitat got killed. But now it's rotting and polluting the water. So an added a level of treatment, a new treatment plant has to be built to address all of these organics that are being introduced into the water, and so this was the federal government's part of saying, I’m sorry, we made a mistake and here is our part of trying to work this out and here is our way of reclaiming this water and reusing it and being able to use a local resource rather than have to pump it in from hundreds of miles away.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: What does that mean for San Diego to have that water back?

BRIAN BILBRAY: I think that not only is it environmentally responsible that we don't burn up energy, we don't have that carbon footprint, we don’t have to build all the infrastructure, but it also means that we have that much more independent source from our big brothers to the north and to the east and that independent source of the future is going to become very, very important, much like the de-sal plant that we are talking about in Carlsbad.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I know that this has been a hectic interview. I want to thank you so much for being here and talking to us today.

BRIAN BILBRAY: Any time. I appreciate it.