WASHINGTON – The Obama administration pressed ahead Tuesday with its plans to close the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, flying a detainee to New York to face federal trial despite bipartisan opposition in Congress to bringing such prisoners to the United States for trial, resettlement or continued detention.
The transfer of Ahmed Ghailani to face capital charges in the 1998 East Africa bombings marked the first time a detainee who is not an American citizen has been brought from the military prison in Cuba to the United States. Ghailani, appearing briefly in U.S. District Court in Manhattan on Tuesday, pleaded not guilty to multiple charges in connection with the blasts at the U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya. Those attacks killed 224 people, including 12 Americans.
Human rights groups, who earlier expressed dismay about President Barack Obama’s announcement that some suspects would be tried in reformed military commissions, welcomed Ghailani’s transfer. But Republicans and some military groups, who were cheered by the prospect of renewed military tribunals, sharply attacked the decision to hold any trials in the United States.
“By bringing Ghailani’s case into the federal court system without a policy or plan on how to deal with the larger Gitmo issue, the Obama administration is again taking a piecemeal approach to a major national security issue,” said Kirk Lippold, a senior military fellow at Military Families United who was commander of the USS Cole when it was bombed in Yemen in 2000.
Since it announced its decision to close the military prison in Guantanamo Bay by next January, the administration has tread a politically treacherous path between the wishes of its liberal constituency and the fears of conservative critics, pleasing and upsetting both at different times.
A senior national security official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the decision-making surrounding Ghailani, said the timing of Tuesday’s transfer “reiterates a message that we believe the system we inherited was broken and not sustainable and needed to be reformed.” The official said that Obama has no intention of backing away from his belief that Guantanamo Bay was “part of a detention system that had largely failed.”
Last month, the Senate voted 90 to 6 to cut funding for the closure of the military prison. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Tuesday that the president, in authorizing the transfer of Ghailani, was ignoring the “clear desire of Congress and the American people that these terrorists not be brought to the United States.”
McConnell also questioned whether Obama has the authority to transfer detainees, saying “there’s an argument that existing law prohibits bringing terrorists into the United States.” He declined to say whether Congress would consider further action to stop the administration from bringing other detainees here.
In his briefing to reporters, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs ignored questions about whether moving Ghailani to New York had essentially bypassed members of Congress. Instead, he insisted that the timing of the move was driven by a desire for justice in a case that dated back more than 10 years.
At a 2007 military hearing in Guantanamo Bay, Ghailani attempted to present himself as an unwitting participant in the bombings.
“I would like to apologize to the United States government for what I did before,” said Ghailani at a hearing at Guantanamo Bay. “It was without my knowledge what they were doing, but I helped them.”