WASHINGTON – Members of Congress from both parties clamored Sunday for President Barack Obama to develop a plan for dealing with the suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay if he intends to fulfill his promise to close its prison by early 2010. The top U.S. military officer also awaited a decision from the commander in chief.
“We’re saying, ‘Mr. President, give us the plan,’ ” said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, acknowledged that figuring out how to fulfill Obama’s promise to close the detention facility on the U.S. navy base in Cuba is “a real challenge.” Officials report that 240 suspected terrorists are housed there.
“We’re working hard now to figure out what the options are and what the best one would be. And that really is a decision the president is going to have to make, certainly in meeting this deadline of what we do,” Mullen said.
Obama’s promise to close the detention facility by early 2010 ran smack into political reality in the last week. Obama’s fellow Democrats denied him funding to move the suspected terrorists while Republicans latched onto a message that helped the minority GOP drive sustained headlines for the first time in months.
“Well, I don’t think you can convince the American people that you can bring the people from Gitmo to their states and they will be safe,” said Sen. Richard Shelby, a Republican.
The not-in-my-backyard chorus drove Obama to deliver a speech defending his decision to close the facility, proposed during the campaign and delivered during his second full day in power. Yet lawmakers and even Obama’s own advisers remained unsure after the speech of how, exactly, the president would make good on his vow to close the symbol of the United States’ detention of suspected terrorists in a legal limbo.
When Obama didn’t specify the mechanics for closing the prison, his allies were left scratching their heads and his critics asking why the need to shut it down, given that some of the prisoners were likely to go to scaled-down versions of Guantanamo anyway.
“I don’t know why it is better to have somebody in a so-called “supermax” facility in, say, Colorado than it is to keep them in Guantanamo, a state-of-the-art facility that we built not too long ago for the explicit purpose of holding these people,” said Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz. “There’s nothing wrong with the prison in Gitmo, and there are a lot of problems – as FBI Director (Robert) Mueller pointed out in testimony just this week – with bringing those people to the United States.”
Mueller told Congress it would be risky to relocate Guantanamo prisoners to U.S. facilities, giving House and Senate Democrats an opening to oppose Obama’s request for $81 million to close Guantanamo without a detailed accounting of where the detainees will go.
Obama’s options in dealing with the prisoners have led him in a circle back to the Bush-era policies he decried. Although the United States has in its domestic prisons many individuals convicted of terrorism, an influx of suspected terrorists onto the U.S. mainland is a political challenge.
“We have terrorists in jail right now, have had for some time,” Mullen said. “They’re in supermax prisons. And they don’t pose a threat. So that’s certainly an option. But again, it’s not one for me to decide.”
Congressional Democrats, however, aren’t taking chances with their president’s choice. They denied Obama funding to move those detainees from Guantanamo to other sites – perhaps in Saudi Arabia, perhaps in Colorado – until lawmakers were assured precise details.
“I think they need to be kept elsewhere, wherever that is,” said Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb. “I don’t want to see them come on American soil.”
A top Obama ally, Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, conceded that the White House stumbled.
“Well, it was a mistake for us to entertain putting money – $80 million – in for the transfer of these detainees until the president’s plan was released,” he said.
Former Secretary of State Colin Powell, a Republican who endorsed Obama’s candidacy and has called for Guantanamo’s closing, also said Obama made a mistake.
“I think that’s the message that came out of Congress: We can’t give you $80 million,” said Powell, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs.
Boxer and Shelby spoke on CNN’s “State of the Union.” Mullen appeared on ABC’s “This Week.” Kyl and Nelson appeared on “Fox News Sunday.” Durbin spoke with NBC’s “Meet the Press.” Powell appeared on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”