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POLITICO Pro Q&A: Rep. Brad Wenstrup

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Washington, December 27, 2016 | Hailey Sadler (202-225-3164) | comments

Brad Wenstrup is just wrapping up his second term in the House, but he's quickly emerged as one of the chief critics of the Obama administration's push to close the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

For the Republican congressman from Ohio whowas posted with the Army at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq following the scandal there, Guantanamo is the safest place to house detainees. It isn't vulnerable to a jailbreak-style attack, he says, and doesn't put Americans at risk. 

And he says the focus on closing Guantanamo, which only has 59 prisoners remaining there, has led the U.S. to capture fewer terrorists and, as a result, fewer opportunities to extract intelligence. 

Wenstrup is pushing for a special legal framework to handle terrorist detainees.

"This is not Timothy McVeigh, which was clearly domestic terrorism. And this is not World War II, where you're going to release the prisoners at the end of the war. We know that," Wenstrup says. "This has been going on — and will go on — at various levels for who knows how long."

An Army reservist and podiatric surgeon who served as a combat surgeon in Iraq, Wenstrup says the military services need to be "checking all the boxes" when it comes to medical readiness and ensuring doctors gets trauma exposure that reflects the cases they'll see deployed to a war zone.

"What I don't want to give up is all that we've learned over the last 15 years that has become such an excellent military medical trauma system," he said.

Wenstrup also took part in a task force set up to review allegations that U.S. Central Command intelligence analysts' reports on the Islamic State were manipulated. That panel issued its interim findings in August.

POLITICO sat down with Wenstrup at the annual Reagan National Defense Forum at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif., to discuss changes to the military health care system, Guantanamo, the intelligence probe's initial findings and the future of veterans' health care.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

As a military surgeon and as someone who's been involved in personnel issues on the Armed Services Committee, what's your take on what the National Defense Authorization Act does to reform the military health system and Tricare?

It's important that we, one, give our troops assurance that they're going to get care and access to care. And that was one of the key components with increasing access through the [military treatment facilities]. ... But also what was near and dear to me is what we're doing with trauma and military medical readiness. ... What I don't want to give up is all that we've learned over the last 15 years that has become such an excellent military medical trauma system, and to be standard across the board as to how we can deliver that. You're still going to need within the service branches, for example, your combat support hospital that can move with the troops. 

But as far as our readiness, we've got to be able to make sure that we're checking all the boxes. So our continual training and education is important. ... For example, I'll drill at Walter Reed. I'm talking to the trauma surgeons there. For 15 years they've been busy as can be and getting the trauma that they need to keep their skill levels up. When we have the downside in wounded, then what are they doing? And their hands become idle and that bothers them and some of them think about getting out. Or if they have the opportunity to go to a civilian center to keep those skills going, to moonlight, if you will. Well, let's formalize that. 

We have, for example, in San Antonio, San Antonio Medical Center, which was formerly Brooke Army Medical Center, does provide Level One trauma for the community. And no one bats an eye at that. Matter of fact, I think the community appreciates that relationship. So, we need to establish more relationships like that.

If the military's going to use you in that capacity, let's make sure that you're being trained in that capacity on a regular basis. ... Define what our trauma teams look like, what our trauma surgeons' level of expertise is at all times and so we build these civilian relationships and make sure that we have the proper training and education for the betterment of our troops and our capabilities in the field.

You've been one of the most outspoken critics the administration's plans to close Guantanamo and move detainees to the U.S. How did you take up that issue?

Having spent a year in a detention facility in Iraq, infamously known as Abu Ghraib prison, a couple years after the scandal ... I realized that there's people out there that no matter how nice you are, they want you dead ... just because you're American. And at the same time at our facility, we had attacks of some type three, four times a week. Small arms fire or rockets, mortars, whatever. Right before I got there in April of 2005, there was an orchestrated attack. There was attempts to release prisoners, to break them out. And that's how our enemy operates.

I also know firsthand that ... in that hospital, where our role was to take care of our troops but predominantly the enemy, I know that we did things right. I know that we treated everyone in the same way we would treat any one of our troops. ... But to me it was no safer place than Guantanamo to do this. Our enemy, as we've seen in the last year, has orchestrated attacks within the United States, within Europe. And if we started moving people into the United States, that puts our communities at risk. 

It's pretty tough to sneak up on Guantanamo. It's a very safe place for both the people that are guarding those that have been captured, and it's a very safe place for those that are captured, for that matter. But at the same time, there's not going to be some attempt, in my opinion, to try and liberate people from Guantanamo. 

This has been a big fight during the Obama administration, but President-elect Donald Trump is not in favor of closing Gitmo. Does this end the debate or change it?

I think it enhances the discussion. ... We have had a policy, basically, of not capturing people for the last several years. The policy has been use drones, kill the enemy. ... Well, when you don't capture anyone you don't gain any intelligence unless you find a laptop or something like that in the aftermath. But you're not gaining much intelligence in that arena.

And I think that we have to have serious discussions not only about where we harbor those that we capture, but then how we go about a system of justice for those that we capture, because this is an entirely different entity. This is not Timothy McVeigh, which was clearly domestic terrorism. And this is not World War II, where you're going to release the prisoners at the end of the war. We know that. 

This has been going — on and will go on — at various levels for who knows how long. So what is our system of justice going to look like that fits into this special category, that has some international approval, at least amongst freedom-loving nations. ... Those are the conversations that I anticipate that we do go forward with that I've been wanting to have for a long time. 

You also served on the task force examining Central Command's intelligence reports on ISIL. What were your takeaways from that investigation?

First of all, it's not done. We aren't finished as far as on the congressional side and we have yet to see the [inspector general's] report on this. So, we're anxiously awaiting that.

Obviously, through surveys and the number of people that have come forward to testify, there was a problem there. What we did basically hear was this was not the same under [Retired] Gen. [James] Mattis, but somewhere along the line something changed to where there was a greater level of intelligence analysts being disgruntled with what was happening or feeling their reports were being changed for whatever reason, which we have not gotten to the bottom of.

Was it political? Was it a style difference? We really don't know. ... But it's become pretty well established that there was a change in the way things were done, and the concern by the whistleblowers and intelligence analysts was legitimate.

So what's left for the task force to do?

We really need to get to the bottom of where in the chain of events did it absolutely take place and why did it happen.

You also sit on the House Veterans Affairs Committee. What are your priorities there headed into the new year?

For me, improving our veterans' health care because that's to my strength ... as a doctor and as a veteran. How can we improve the process and the VA health care system on behalf of our veterans? 

Do you agree with the approach of Chairman Jeff Miller and Trump on universal choice, where any veteran can seek private medical treatment?

Those are things that should be decided on what makes the most sense and run it like a business. ... What's the difference between, say, one of my partners in our orthopedic group who was working nine days every two weeks in our practice, but one day every two weeks at the VA? Whether he sees them at the VA or whether he sees them at his private practice, he's a VA doctor.

We can have a system of providers that will be proud to wear the VA logo and take care of our veterans. Does it always have to be within the walls of the VA? ... I would love to see every veteran using the VA system to have a primary care doctor they call their own, that they have a relationship with. And when it comes time for needing some kind of specialty care referral ... the decision on who and where that is is between the doctor and the patient deciding what's best for the patient.

Now if the nearby VA facility has what they need and it's the best for that patient, then that's where they go. But that's a decision those two should make. But if it's the person down the street, then maybe that's where they should go.

Every facility has to look at its strengths and weaknesses and what else is available in the community ... to allow the veteran to get the care that they need in an expeditious fashion. ... It's a matter of being smart and the VA can be centers of excellence, especially for the things that are consistent with military service ... and just make sure that we're the best at that — but at the same time, make sure that we are providing the best possible care for our veterans by a VA system that provides within and outside the walls of the VA so that our veterans are taken care of.

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