Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio visited the U.S. Navy base at Guantánamo Bay — setting foot on Cuban soil for the first time in his life — in a solo fact-finding visit on Tuesday that the Cuban-American lawmaker cast as nothing more than typical congressional business as a novice member of the intelligence committee.
“Certainly, it was touching to be able to fly over the island from a distance and see it and know that’s the land that saw your parents and your grandparents born,” Rubio said on his return to Miami in a U.S. Navy C-12 aircraft.
“It’s a place I hope to visit one day soon — a free Cuba, one where the people of Cuba can chose their own leaders and chose their own future.”
Dozens of members of both houses of Congress have made the day trip to the outpost since President George W. Bush set it up soon after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
But the trip by Rubio, whose parents immigrated to the United States from Cuba in 1956, took on a special significance as a dozen reporters thronged his return to ask about where it fit into is role as a potential vice presidential running mate to Mitt Romney.
The senator swatted the question aside, calling it a routine stop as “a member of the intelligence committee,” noting that after not yet two years in the Senate, there are still “a lot of places I need to visit and get up to speed with.”
Rubio noted that he had planned to visit the base last August but canceled because his mother became ill. He declined to answer a question on whether, based on his briefings Tuesday, President Barack Obama was any closer to realizing his ambition in emptying the prison camps.
“These are enemy combatants who are directly engaged in the fight against the United States and our interests,” he said, adding “there’s an ongoing military tribunal process, certainly that’s going to have to work its way through.”
While there, the senator got “an intelligence overview” at the detention center, toured Camp 6, the medium-security lockup where about 80 percent of the 169 captives at Guantánamo are currently held, and met with some Cuban residents at the base who, as Rubio put it, “find themselves in an odd migratory situation” — they moved into the base during the 1960s, Rubio said, “after Fidel Castro closed the gate.”
He refused to say whether he was allowed entry to Guantánamo’s secretive Camp 7, where the United States houses former CIA captives, to get a glimpse of the accused 9/11 plotters who are held there.
He did say that at no time during the one-day briefing and inspection did members of the military ask him for help in obtaining additional facilities or military provisions for Guantánamo.
Across the years, detention center staff members have presented visiting dignitaries with ball caps and tri-folded American flags that flew over the base and other items as mementos of their visits. Rubio said he brought back no souvenirs from his first steps on Cuban soil.
In another Guantánamo development Tuesday, the judge handling the 9/11 trial postponed until Aug. 8 the next hearing in the case.
Army Col. James L. Pohl, the judge, had earlier set the next hearing for June 12-15. But the attorney for reputed Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed had a conflict on June 12: the scheduled execution of another client in Boise, Idaho.
Pohl is now considering whether to split up the five-man conspiracy trial, a notion that the Pentagon prosecution team opposes. The war court prosecution team argued in a filing unsealed Tuesday that the men in 2008 wrote that they considered the “accusations against them as a ‘badge of honor’ and sought martyrdom.”
Defense lawyers have until Thursday to advise the judge on whether Mohammed and his four alleged accomplices want separate trials.