By Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Some detainees released from Guantanamo Bay are responsible for the deaths of Americans, a senior Defense Department official said on Wednesday, yet the administration still believes it is in the country's best interests to close the controversial prison.
Republican lawmakers who say the detention center could help prevent attacks like those this week in Belgium were angered by the remarks of Paul Lewis, the Pentagon's special envoy for the effort to close the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
"Unfortunately, there have been Americans that have died because of Gitmo detainees," Lewis told the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee. He did not give details about the deaths.
"When anybody dies it's a tragedy. We don't want anybody to die because we transfer detainees," Lewis said during an exchange with Republican Representative Dana Rohrabacher. "However, it's the best judgment and the considered judgment of this administration and the previous administration that ... we should close Gitmo."
Congress members have argued bitterly over whether detainees transferred from Guantanamo Bay would end up on the battlefield.
The Obama administration has been trying to make good on a 2009 pledge the president made to close the facility. U.S. law bars transfers to the United States, and lawmakers are unlikely to lift those restrictions, especially in an election year.
Guantanamo opponents say holding prisoners for years without charge or trial goes against fundamental U.S. values and acts as a recruiting tool for militant groups, potentially endangering American military personnel.
Many Republican lawmakers insist the prison is an essential tool for holding and interrogating suspects who threaten the United States. Rohrabacher suggested at Wednesday's hearing that the attack in Brussels, and attacks like those in Paris last year, might change the mind of U.S. allies who have pressed Obama to close the detention camp.
"Let me suggest that attitude of our European friends may well be changing in the next six months or so when they realize that the slaughter that’s taking place in Paris and now in Brussels is part of an international movement to destroy Western civilization and replace it with a caliphate," Rohrabacher said.
On Tuesday, attacks by Islamic State suicide bombers killed at last 31 people in Belgium.
Of the 780 prisoners ever held at Guantanamo, 647 were released to their home countries or resettled elsewhere, most while Republican George W. Bush was president. Today 91 detainees remain.
(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Don Durfee and David Gregorio)