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Obama moves to regain initiative on Guantanamo closure

The president plans a speech to defend his plans in the face of growing opposition. One option may be to hold detainees indefinitely without trial.

May 21, 2009|Julian E. Barnes and Josh Meyer

WASHINGTON — President Obama signaled his intention Wednesday to press forward on his plan to close the Guantanamo Bay prison, despite a growing challenge from both political parties and a limited set of options to make his detainee policy work.

In a sign of his lost momentum, the Senate on Wednesday voted 90 to 6 to block funding for the shutdown. The vote followed criticism that the administration was backtracking on Americans' security.

But Obama, in a bid to retake the initiative, plans an address today to forcefully defend his proposal for closing Guantanamo by year's end. In the morning speech at the National Archives in Washington, he also will address prospects for a controversial proposal to hold detainees indefinitely without trial, if necessary, and will reassert his argument that closing the prison would advance U.S. security.

"The president signed an order early in his administration to close it, and he intends to keep that promise," said White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs.

In a possible sign of a new approach, an administration official said that for the first time, a Guantanamo detainee is being sent to the U.S. to stand trial in a criminal court. Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, a Tanzanian captured in Pakistan in 2004, had been indicted by a federal grand jury in New York on allegations that he took part in attacks on two U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998.

Obama met with leaders of human rights organizations Wednesday as Congress debated the issue and the White House planned its response.

Since Obama's decision four months ago to close the prison, few new options have emerged to ease the way to a shutdown. To clear the political logjam, the administration and Congress face difficult and politically unpopular choices.

"The president is going to have to spend political capital; he will have to lean on people and call out the political cowards," said John D. Hutson, a retired Navy admiral and judge advocate general who advised Obama on detention policy during his presidential campaign. "He is going to have to regain the high ground and the initiative. He had the initiative and it slipped away."

The administration's counterattack began Wednesday, when a top Pentagon official challenged the growing congressional opposition to moving detainees to the U.S., saying some detainees must be placed in mainland prisons.

"This is a case where we need to ask members of Congress to take a more strategic view," said Michele Flournoy, undersecretary of Defense for policy. "Many of these members called for the closing of Guantanamo, and we need their partnership in making that possible."

But Republicans seized on remarks Wednesday by FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III, who told Congress that detainees could pose risks in U.S. prisons, such as radicalizing others. Mueller, appointed by former President George W. Bush, also noted that convicted criminals had run gangs from within prisons, suggesting that terrorists could coordinate attacks from behind bars.

Democratic lawmakers and human rights activists said that Obama must use today's speech to recover ground lost to the GOP in the Guantanamo debate. By expanding public support for his plan, he can avert future battles, they said.

"One thing he has to do is begin to articulate the specifics of a plan for closing Guantanamo," said Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster. "The Hill needs to hear that."

The administration has been caught up in a series of national security controversies in recent weeks. Liberals have criticized its reluctance to punish architects of the Bush administration's detention policies, its refusal to release photos of harsh interrogations, and its decision to stick with the Bush administration's military commissions.

Conservatives have denounced Obama's policies, charging that the president has lowered the nation's defenses and made terrorist attacks more likely. Former Vice President Dick Cheney, a frequent critic, is scheduled to speak today to the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank.

U.S. trials are seen as one solution to the detainee puzzle. A U.S. court trial in New York for Ghailani, indicted in the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Nairobi, Kenya, has been planned but was just announced.

"This was approved well before today and has been in the works for some time, but now we're in the position to make a final determination," the administration official said.

Gibbs said that Obama would not release a lengthy report today on his plan for Guantanamo. But experts and analysts said that clearing the political and legal logjam will probably require the Obama administration to endorse additional policies unpopular with its political allies.

For instance, with few nations volunteering to accept prisoners, the administration may have to transfer some back to their home countries -- even at the risk that those suspects could be abused in prison or be released to rejoin fighting against the U.S.

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