Obama faces dwindling options in his effort to close Guantanamo Bay

By Peter Finn and Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 29, 2010; A03

The closure of the military detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, is beginning to look like a protracted and uncertain project for the Obama administration as political, legal and security concerns limit the president's options.

Having blown the one-year closure deadline set last January in an executive order, the administration is planning to transfer some detainees to a state prison it hopes to acquire in Illinois. But there appears to be little mood in Congress to provide the administration with either the funding for the prison or the authority to transfer detainees who will be held indefinitely.

At the same time, opposition is building to plans to transfer a number of detainees, including Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the self-proclaimed mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, to a civilian court in Lower Manhattan for federal trial.

"My hope is that the attorney general and the president decide to change their mind," New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said this week, after having welcomed the choice of venue in November.

Facing rising local concern about disruption to life in the city, and with some estimates of security costs touching $1 billion, Bloomberg said an alternative proposal to hold a trial on a military base is a "reasonably good one."

Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) plans to introduce a bill next week that would prohibit funding of a federal trial for Mohammed and other Sept. 11 defendants, in an effort to force the case into a military tribunal. An earlier such legislative effort failed, but a spokesman for Graham said that the senator has been taking the pulse of his colleagues and that "momentum has been building."

White House officials said Thursday that President Obama is committed to federal trials for Mohammed and other detainees.

"The president is committed to seeing that he's brought to justice," Bill Burton, a White House spokesman, said onboard Air Force One as Obama flew to Tampa for the day. "He agrees with the attorney general's opinion in November that he and others can be litigated successfully and [secured] in the United States of America."

Pressed about whether the White House would continue to favor a trial in New York, officials said they are not taking a position on the location. They said the decision rests with the Justice Department.

Mohammed and about 34 other detainees, who will be prosecuted in either federal court or military commissions, are, in some respects, the least of the challenges facing the administration.

Of the 192 detainees remaining at Guantanamo Bay, nearly 50 are too dangerous to release but are unprosecutable and should be held under the laws of war, according to recommendations by a Justice Department-led review of all detainee cases. The administration also has suspended the repatriation of any Yemenis cleared for release, a decision that is based on security concerns in their country but that could leave as many as 60 Yemenis in limbo.

Currently, the administration can only move detainees to the United States for prosecution, repatriate them or transfer them to a third country for resettlement. That leaves no clear answer on how to handle detainees held indefinitely and the Yemenis.

Republicans are flatly opposed to closing the Guantanamo Bay facility, and some Democrats are unwilling to back the administration.

"I don't think it's appropriate for them to be held on American soil, so I would oppose both" funding for the acquisition of the Illinois prison and authority for the administration to move detainees there, Sen. James Webb (D-Va.) said in a conference call with reporters Thursday.

Webb and five other senators, including Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) said in a letter this week to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. that the security risks and price tag of federal trials are too great.

"Holding Khalid Sheikh Mohammed's trial in that city, and trying other enemy combatants in venues such as Washington, DC and northern Virginia, would unnecessarily increase the burden of facing those challenges, including the increased risk of terrorist attacks," the senators wrote.

The District's top federal judge said Thursday that his court can safely handle high-profile terrorism trials, but that the prosecutions would pose a "security burden." The federal courthouse is three blocks from the U.S. Capitol.

"Ultimately, if the political branches decide the courts are going to do it, then we're going to do it," Chief U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth said in an interview. "We'll work with the Marshals and other officials to ensure we do it safely."

He said the security enhancements would include blocking streets and other undisclosed screening measures. He said he did not know how much the stepped-up security would cost.

Lamberth said Justice Department officials have told him which terrorism suspects they are considering bringing to trial in the District's federal court, but he declined to identify them.

Human rights activists acknowledged that Obama appears to have a dwindling set of choices but suggested that might lead to decisions Republicans could find even more unpalatable than closing Guantanamo Bay.

"He has no way to bring them in at the moment unless he prosecutes them," said Tom Malinowski, head of the Washington office of Human Rights Watch. "The irony, from the point of view of the Republicans, who have chosen to use this against the president, is that they are making it more likely that people they consider to be dangerous are going to be sent home because that becomes the only conceivable option."

Staff writer Anne E. Kornblut contributed to this report.

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