Impressions from the ANCA Leo Sarkisian Internship Class of 2009
The House Foreign Affairs Committee has a broad and diverse agenda. On any given day, we can see hearings on issues from China to Russia, to Turkey to the issues in the Middle East overall. The main foreign affairs committee room is home to each of these hearings – full committee and specialized subcommittees – taking us from country to country without leaving our seats.
To give you an idea, here is a snapshot of just one day of hearings, held on June 16, 2009.
Starting at 9:00am, the Subcommittee on International Organizations, Human Rights and Oversight, chaired by Massachusetts Democrat William Delahunt, held the second of several hearings regarding the twenty two Uighur (pronounced wee-ger) men who were previously detained in Guantanamo Bay. As we walked into the room, we saw several people placing pictures of the men on easels in front of a handful of attendees. The pictures looked very staged and showed the men swimming, holding a child, eating ice cream in a small shop, and looking out a car window, smiling widely. It was unclear why they were there – and sure enough, the pictures were taken down as Chairman Delahunt began the hearing.
The opening statement and testimonies began very smoothly. All of the Members of Congress and witnesses agreed that there was no evidence showing that the Uighurs were a threat to U.S. security. They agreed that the Uighurs themselves were not connected to Al Qaida or an organization called the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM). They further discussed this group, alleging that the detainees were purchased for $500,000 a person through a bounty system. Subcommittee members and panelists also agreed that the justification for their detainment had been based on claims the communist Chinese dictatorship had made against them. The committee members questioned Assistant Secretary Schriver on whether or not there was legitimate evidence that ETIM had committed violent acts that constituted terrorism. After beating around the bush, the Assistant Secretary finally admitted that there was some evidence that proved so, however this information was classified.
Things became heated as Mr. Bruce Fein began his testimony. Folks may know Bruce Fein as a mouthpiece for the Turkish Coalition of America, traveling around the country denying the Armenian Genocide. Uighurs are of ethnically Turkish origin – which may explain his interest in this particular case. Throughout his testimony Mr. Fein spoke in a volume that left the audience’s ears ringing long after and a tone that was acrid and accusatory. He started off by trying to play on the committee’s guilt, dangling the shame of the U.S. Founding Fathers over their heads. He talked about the injustice of not bringing detainees into the U.S., comparing the Uighur’s plight in China to that of the colonists against the British. Due in part to the fact that Mr. Fein was screaming as loud as he could and waving his hands about, it then became increasingly difficult to understand the meaning of his testimony. Mr. Fein began comparing the Uighurs to the Battle of Lexington and repeating a part of the words in Emerson’s famous “Concord Hymn” (Chairman Delahunt hails from Concord or thereabouts). He also blamed Congress for the fact that the Uighurs were originally considered terrorists, again accusing them of failing the Founding Fathers.
By the time Mr. Fein was done with the final testimony, California Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher’s face was a vibrant scarlet. I could feel the tension in the room. He then exploded on Mr. Fein. He revisited the casualties of September 11th, and very emotionally asked how we could allow the detainees back in America. He stated that he believed we should not extend constitutional rights during a time of war. Still, Mr. Fein stayed true to what he had said. Needless to say, the screaming continued on both sides for quite some time. Then the four-hour hearing continued on with less arguing. In the afternoon, it was the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe that was hosting a hearing featuring testimony from Assistant Secretary of State Phillip Gordon regarding the Obama Administration’s policy on Europe. In contrast to the small audience at the morning hearing, at 1:30pm the line to get in was wrapped around the long hallway, and when we were let into the room there was not an empty seat. Here we got a lesson on how Congressional timing works. The hearing was set for 1:30, but with Members having to walk over to the House floor to vote on four key issues, we didn’t actually begin until well past 2:30pm. The audience included four members of French Parliament, who sat in the front row, waiting just like the rest of us.
Chairman Robert Wexler (D-FL) began the hearing by highlighting President Obama’s recent trip to Turkey, arguing that it is an important ally and that the U.S. must support Turkey in their ambitions and work towards an Armenian and Turkish reconciliation. Assistant Secretary Gordon began to explain the United States’ role in the spread of democracy, peacemaking, and the stabilization of European countries. He believes that we must support Turkey and the advances and efforts they are making. He said that the U.S. will be promoting good relations between Turkey and Armenia as well as Azerbaijan and Armenia, touching also upon peace settlements with Cyprus and Turkey, U.S.-Russia relations, and renewed leadership in the Balkans.
Chairman Wexler asked the first question – focusing the Armenia-Turkey dialogue and how that would affect Azerbaijan. Assistant Secretary Gordon responded that there are many opportunities for the U.S. to broaden relations with Azerbaijan. Careful never to actually mention what the issues between Armenia and Turkey were, the Assistant Secretary referred to current discussions between the two countries as “historic” but independent from Armenia – Azerbaijan dialogue. He believes that all the countries would benefit from normalizing relations. One daring Congressman – Florida Republican Gus Bilirakis – asked the Assistant Secretary what the U.S. is doing about Turkey’s ongoing crackdown on free speech, and publications on the Armenian Genocide. To this, Assistant Secretary Gordon responded (carefully avoiding the word genocide) that the U.S. would push Turkey to allow for more freedom of speech, but that Turkey was already working towards that.
At the end of the 90-minute hearing, many of us were left disappointed, hoping to have heard a more concrete response from Assistant Secretary Gordon on what the U.S. is doing to help mediate Armenia-Turkey issues and the Nagorno Karabakh conflict. I also left annoyed that the Assistant Secretary had not answered the questions posed with any concrete visuals, and that he had thoroughly avoided any direct discussion of the Armenian Genocide.
It was an education on how the Congressional hearing process works (or, in some cases, doesn’t work.)