By Peter Finn and Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, February 7, 2009
President Obama assured relatives and victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and the bombing of the USS Cole that he is keeping an open mind about how to handle the approximately 245 detainees held at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, according to participants in an hour-long meeting yesterday at the White House.
The president met with about 40 family members and victims, who hold different views on his decision to close the prison in Cuba within a year. The exchange, which was sometimes passionate but never acrimonious, left some who were deeply skeptical of the administration's decision to suspend military commissions at Guantanamo Bay satisfied that the president has not yet decided to abolish the current system of prosecuting suspected terrorists.
Obama told the group that he was only hitting the "pause button" when he sought the suspension of proceedings against 21 detainees, including Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the self-proclaimed mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks. And he assured the group that he wants the swift prosecution of those responsible for the terrorist attacks and their facilitators.
"It was evident he was genuinely conflicted about the best approach," said Hamilton Peterson of Bethesda, who lost his father and stepmother on United Flight 93 and thinks Guantanamo Bay should be kept open. "All of us were impressed with his sincerity and the amount of time he spent with us."
The White House press office said Obama wanted yesterday's meeting "to be just the beginning of a dialogue."
"The President started the meeting by thanking those in attendance for serving as the nation's conscience and continuing to speak out about these tragic events," the White House said in a brief statement describing the session. "The President made it clear that his most important responsibility is to keep the American people safe. He explained why he believes that closing Guantanamo will make our nation safer and help ensure that those who are guilty receive swift and certain justice within a legal framework that is durable, and that helps America fight terrorism more effectively around the world."
The administration is examining the profile of each Guantanamo Bay detainee to determine who can be released, who can be prosecuted and how. Officials have not settled on a legal strategy for prosecution, which could involve reforming the current system of military commissions or, as human rights groups advocate, shifting trials to federal courts or military courts-martial.
Lorie Van Auken, a leader of September 11th Advocates, a group headed by four New Jersey women who lost their husbands in the attacks, called the meeting "impressive," saying Obama gave detailed answers to their questions and allayed many of their concerns. She said the president did not rule out some form of military commissions in the future and acknowledged shortcomings in dealing with terrorism suspects in regular criminal courts.
"He acknowledged this was quite a mess and it really needed to be looked at by his legal team and by him," said Van Auken, whose husband, Kenneth Van Auken, was killed in the World Trade Center and whose group supports closing Guantanamo Bay. "I think everybody recognized, no matter which side of the issue they're on, that this is a quagmire that will not be solved easily."
Mindy Kleinberg, another member of the group, said Obama also made clear that "nobody is just going to get freed by the closing of Guantanamo."
"I think the point was that you have to make sure they have a system in place that can actually work," said Kleinberg, whose husband, Alan Kleinberg, also died in the World Trade Center. "I think even the people who came to the meeting who wanted to keep it open could understand his point of view."
Kirk S. Lippold, former commanding officer of the USS Cole, which was bombed in Yemen in 2000, emerged from the White House sounding much more open to Obama's decisions than he had earlier.
"The most important thing that came out of this for me and for many of the families there was the fact that the president agreed to have an open door," he said outside the White House.
"There was passion and emotion, but it was enormously respectful," Peterson said. "I was extremely satisfied and impressed with his facility with the issues and his genuine commitment to take into consideration the views of family members who want to see Guantanamo rehabilitated, not dispensed with."
Staff writer Anne E. Kornblut contributed to this report.