Ross fundraising causes more controversy after help from N.C. lawyer for Taliban detainees

Eamon Queeney—The North State Journal
Deborah Ross

WINSTON-SALEM – Deborah Ross is getting heat this week for one of her campaign fundraisers thrown at the home of the attorney for five Guantanamo Bay prisoners. Robert “Hoppy” Elliot, of Winston-Salem, threw the campaign event for Ross and was the lawyer for the five Taliban prisoners who were exchanged for the release of for U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl in 2014. Elliot represented several Guantanamo detainees, including Khairullah Khairkhwa, a former Taliban official who, along with four others, was released to Afghanistan in the exchange by the Obama administration in 2014.According to a Pentagon report Khairkhwa was detained in 2002 and labeled a “high-risk” threat because U.S. Intelligence investigators believe that he was involved in a terrorist training camp for the Bin Laden network with al Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Elliot and Ross worked together for the American Civil Liberties Union, one of the biggest critics of the U.S. Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba. Elliot was on the board and served as general counsel for the ACLU of North Carolina, where Ross served as the executive director. The ACLU has actively campaigned against the prison calling it a “shameful episode in American history.” The ACLU’s website keeps a countdown clock towards closing it. In 2007 Elliot’s client, Khairkhwa, was reported to be in good health in a report recommending that he stay under U.S. Department of Defense control. The report said he was among the prisoners that the Pentagon called a “high intelligence value,” saying they believed he trafficked opium through Western Afghanistan to fund terrorist activities. “Following the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks, detainee represented the Taliban during meetings with Iranian officials seeking to support hostilities against US and Coalition forces,” the report said. “Detainee also attended a meeting at the direction of UBL, reportedly accompanied by members of HAMAS. Detainee and his deputy were probably associated with a militant training camp in Herat operated by deceased al-Qaida commander (in Iraq) Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.”Khairkhwa was released as part of fulfilling a 2008 campaign goal of President Barack Obama to close the U.S. Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba where 60 prisoners are still held. Khairkhwa was released to Quatar, where he was required to spend one year. According to reports at the time, the release was seen as a victory to Taliban leadership. “Detainee is extremely intelligent and may have detailed knowledge about the inner workings of the Taliban than any other detainee held at JTF-GTMO,” wrote the report. “Detainee provided a vast amount of information, but has not given sensitive, unique, and possibly incriminating information about himself or high profile Taliban and al-Qaida members.”Ross’ campaign has not responded to a request for comment on the fundraiser or the issue of Guantanamo Bay before publishing time. When the fundraiser came to light, her opponent, incumbent Sen. Richard Burr, who is also Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, seized the opportunity to draw contrast between himself and Ross, running ads that highlight the importance of the Senate in national security policy and operations to defeat terrorism.Burr spokesman Jesse Hunt said, “Deborah Ross claims she doesn’t support the closure of Gitmo, but she has no problem taking money from a lawyer who is trying to get terrorists released from the detention facility. If Ross really doesn’t believe these terrorists should be released back into the Middle East or housed on U.S. soil, she should return the money from the lawyer trying to free Gitmo detainees.”With the election just one week away, Ross appears to be in a dead heat with Burr, both polling at 48 percent of voter support, and three percent undecided. The race is among the most closely watched in the nation as Democrats hope to tip the power in the U.S. Senate to their side if they can pick up four seats. In a report from the Federal Election Commission as of October 1, the Ross campaign has raised about $15 million dollars and spent about $7.3 million. The Burr campaign has raised about $11 million and spent $5.4 million. The two largest donors so far are the Democratic Senatorial Campaign which gave $9.2 million to the Ross campaign and the Senate Leadership Fund which gave $9.7 million to the Burr campaign.