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Politics and fear-mongering keep Guantanamo open

Thursday, May 27, 2010; A26

IN JANUARY 2009, president-elect Barack Obama told Post editors and reporters that he would consider it a failure if the detention facility at the U.S. Naval Base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, was still operating at the end of his first term.

Such failure seemed unlikely; after all, the president would have four years to close the notorious prison -- a goal shared by his Republican predecessor. Failure does not seem as far-fetched now, because of administration missteps and Congress's crass politicization of the issue.

For the past year, lawmakers from both parties have engaged in opportunism and fear-mongering to block the closure of Guantanamo, a facility so universally reviled outside this country that its continued operation can only erode the nation's moral authority. The most recent example came last week when the House Armed Services Committee passed a Defense Department authorization bill that prohibits the use of federal funds to "modify or construct U.S. facilities" for Guantanamo detainees. This provision is aimed at thwarting the Obama administration's plan to transform a state prison in Thomson, Ill., into a maximum-security facility for those now held in Guantanamo. A different appropriations bill maintains funds for the Justice Department to buy the Thomson prison, according to a White House spokesman, but the mandate from the Armed Services Committee would stymie its intended use.

Some lawmakers have argued that the Obama administration would endanger U.S. lives by imprisoning terrorism suspects on U.S. soil. Yet convicted shoe bomber Richard Reid and those responsible for the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center have been imprisoned without difficulty in U.S. prisons for years.

Congress has a responsibility to help develop the country's anti-terrorism policies, but its decisions should be based on level-headed assessments. These have been sorely missing from the debate on Guantanamo.

Meanwhile, the administration undercut its argument for civilian trials by bungling the logistics and politics in the case of Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed; the Justice Department backed, then backed off of, a New York City trial, and has failed to announce when and where Mr. Mohammed will be tried. The administration also has failed to work aggressively to establish a legal framework to authorize and govern the indefinite detention of some who may be too dangerous to release but who cannot be put on trial. So Guantanamo Bay lives on.

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