Obama preparing order to shut Guantanamo
WASHINGTON - President-elect Barack Obama is preparing to issue an executive order his first week in office - and perhaps his first day - to close the US military prison at Guantanamo Bay, two presidential transition team advisers said yesterday.
It's unlikely the detention facility at the Navy base in Cuba will be closed anytime soon. In an interview last weekend, Obama said it would be "a challenge" to close it even within the first 100 days of his administration.
But the order, which would fulfill a campaign pledge, would start the process of deciding what to do with the estimated 250 Al Qaeda and Taliban suspects and potential witnesses who are being held there. Most have not been charged with a crime.
The Guantanamo directive would be one of a series of executive orders Obama is planning to issue shortly after he takes office a week from today, according to the two advisers.
The advisers spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the orders that have not yet been finalized. Obama transition team spokeswoman Brooke Anderson declined to comment yesterday.
The two advisers said the executive order will direct the new administration to look at each of the cases of the Guantanamo detainees to see whether they can be released or if they should still be held, and if so, where.
Many of the Guantanamo detainees are cleared for release, and others could be sent back to their native countries and held there. But many nations have resisted Bush administration efforts to repatriate the prisoners back home. Both Obama advisers said it is hoped that nations that had initially resisted taking detainees will be more willing to do so after dealing with the new administration.
What remains the thorniest issue for Obama, the advisers said, is what to do with the rest of the prisoners, including at least 15 so-called "high value detainees" considered among the most dangerous there.
Detainees held on US soil would have certain legal rights that they were not entitled to while imprisoned in Cuba.
It's also not clear if they would face trial through the current military tribunal system, or in federal civilian courts, or though a to-be-developed legal system that would mark a hybrid of the two.
Lawmakers have moved to block transfer of the detainees to at least two potential and frequently discussed military facilities: an Army prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., and a Navy brig in Charleston, S.C. A Marine Corps prison at Camp Pendleton in Southern California also is under consideration, a Pentagon official said.
Senator Sam Brownback, a Kansas Republican, said yesterday that "it's hard to show why terror suspects should be housed in Kansas."
"If the holding facility at Guantanamo Bay is closed, a new facility should be built, designed specifically to handle detainees," Brownback said in a statement.
Obama promised during the presidential campaign to shut Guantanamo, endearing him to constitutional law specialists, civil libertarians, and other critics who called the Bush administration detentions a violation of international law.
The executive order marks only a first step at what is likely to be a long legal process. Still, American Civil Liberties Union legislative director Caroline Fredrickson called it "extremely meaningful."
"It's clear that there is a process of time that will be necessary to close it properly, to make sure that human rights and respect and security is protected," Fredrickson said. "But the fact that it's set in motion is extremely good news."