Obama trapped in Guantanamo good intentions
Anne Davies Herald Correspondent in Washington
May 16, 2009
IT WAS an easy promise made in the jubilant first days of the presidency: close the infamous Guantanamo Bay prison camp within a year.
Barack Obama also announced he was suspending military commission hearings for 120 days to look for alternatives. Four months later, the complex realities of handling the 241 remaining prisoners in Guantanamo have given him a nasty reality check.
As the 120-day stay on military commission hearings approaches, whispers in Washington point to the resumption of military commissions, albeit in a modified form, setting Mr Obama on a collision course with his liberal supporters.
"The Obama Administration shouldn't tinker with a fundamentally flawed system," said Stacy Sullivan, counter-terrorism adviser at Human Rights Watch. "Reviving the military commissions would strip much of the meaning from closing Guantanamo."
Mr Obama's promises were unadorned. "As President, I will close Guantanamo, reject the Military Commissions Act and adhere to the Geneva Conventions," he said in August 2007.
The challenge in closing Guantanamo will be finding viable alternatives for the prisoners. States, territories and even federal lawmakers are raising the familiar refrain "not in my backyard".
"By releasing trained terrorists into civilian communities in the United States the Administration will, by definition, endanger the American people," the Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell, warned recently.
Mr Obama's own party is not co-operating either. Democrats recently stripped $US94 million earmarked for the cost of relocation of Guantanamo prisoners out of a military budget bill, telling the President they would reconsider when he put a concrete plan on the table.
This now gives Congress a big voice in the process and it will not be in a good way for Mr Obama if the case of Hardin, a town in Montana, is indicative. Hardin volunteered to take detainees into its empty prison, only to have the entire Montana US congressional delegation, including the Democrat members, veto the idea.
"I understand the need to create jobs, but we're not going to bring al-Qaeda to Big Sky Country no way, not on my watch," said Senator Max Baucus, a senior Democrat.
It has been little better internationally. Two years ago 21 Uighur Chinese Muslims were cleared for release but cannot be repatriated to China because they face persecution. Albania has taken five, and recently Northern Virginia offered to resettle as many as seven. But there are more than 60 prisoners who could be released - if they could find a country to take them.
This week there were reports that Germany will take 10, but Australia has so far rejected taking any. No doubt there will be further discussions.
"The slogan of closing Guantanamo sounds good: the execution of it is infinitely harder," said a lawyer who used to be intimately involved with the military commissions.
The 241 prisoners break down into three basic categories: those like the Uighurs who could be released; those deemed to be enemy combatants who if let go could fight the US again; and about 75 to 80 who have committed acts that could be criminally prosecuted.