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Guantanamo on hold over detainee plans

November 15, 2009|Julian E. Barnes

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration took an important step toward closing the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, when it announced plans Friday to prosecute the accused Sept. 11 conspirators in the United States. But the move also underscored the near certainty that President Obama will miss a self-imposed January deadline for shuttering the controversial facility.

Five detainees -- including self-proclaimed Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, will be tried in federal court in New York. But the plans leave unsettled the fate of more than 200 remaining detainees, who now represent the biggest obstacle to closing the prison.

Five of those remaining men, Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. said Friday, will be prosecuted by military tribunals. And, military officials said, dozens of the others have been approved for transfer to other countries.

But finding secure facilities in places where they won't be tortured has proved difficult. Just as big a problem will be detainees who officials say cannot be released or transferred because they are potentially dangerous and cannot be prosecuted using available evidence.

The Obama administration has concluded that it will have to hold some detainees long-term, without trial. The question is where to hold them, if not at Guantanamo.

"Best of luck trying to finding an American [town] that would be comfortable with the idea" of holding the detainees, said Jena Baker McNeill, a domestic security analyst with the conservative Heritage Foundation. "There are a lot of people on both sides, not just Republicans, very uncomfortable [about] bringing detainees to the United States."

The administration has lined up support in Illinois for the federal government to take over the Thomson Correctional Center, an underused maximum-security prison about 150 miles west of Chicago.

But even with a willing host community, the obstacles are daunting. Current law forbids the transfer of detainees from Guantanamo to the U.S. Congressional lawmakers have said that they will not lift that ban until the administration presents them with a site.

But Republicans already are rallying support to short-circuit plans for trials for the accused Sept. 11 plotters. If opposition also materializes to plans to move detainees to Illinois, Republicans are likely to oppose any change in the law on transferring detainees.

Conservatives noted that measures barring the transfer of prisoners to the U.S. have won support from large numbers of Democrats and Republicans -- and could do so again.

McNeill said that the move to prosecute Mohammed and his alleged conspirators does little to shut the prison. "PR-wise, this looks really good," she said. "But in reality, the Obama administration has a long way to go to meet their deadlines."

Elisa Massimino, president of Human Rights First, disagreed. When the George W. Bush administration moved Mohammed and the other suspected plotters to Guantanamo, it solidified reasons for keeping the prison open. Moving them out will be just as pivotal, she said.

"Clearly, this is a huge hurdle," Massimino said.

Holder acknowledged Friday that it would be difficult to close Guantanamo by Jan. 22, the date Obama set.

Among the decisions looming is where to hold the military tribunals, which until now have all been held at Guantanamo Bay. But the administration is likely to prefer to hold them at a U.S. base to speed Guantanamo's closure.

There is no legal requirement on where the tribunals may be held. Senior defense officials indicated recently that they were close to finding a location, a potential signal that the Illinois site might be used.

One irony of the debate is that the collision of Obama's order to close Guantanamo and the Republicans' opposition to holding detainees in the U.S. could lead to a policy neither side favors: a choice between charging detainees or releasing them.

"The wisest course is to send everyone to their home countries and not hold them indefinitely," said Tom Malinowski, the Washington advocacy director of Human Rights Watch. "The irony of the congressional response is they are pushing the administration in the direction of a charge-or- release policy."

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julian.barnes@latimes.com

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