Guantanamo closure still a long way off

Obama needs help from Congress to shutter prison

By Devlin Barrett
Associated Press / January 22, 2010

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WASHINGTON - As President Obama neared his self-imposed deadline to close the Guantanamo Bay prison, the Justice Department offices of the terrorist detention task force were bustling. Not with lawyers, but with construction workers, who were tearing apart the walls and ripping out any trace of the secretive work, though Obama’s goal is still far off.

The staff members were gone, having completed recommendations on detention policy. On Wednesday the Guantanamo task force made its final recommendations for the 196 remaining detainees awaiting transfer, trial, or further detention.

Attorney General Eric Holder has already decided that the most feared detainee, the self-declared mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and four henchmen should face trial in New York. But the Obama administration is still struggling to find the political muscle, diplomatic dexterity, and cash from Congress to implement those tough, often unpopular decisions about the remaining detainees.

As one of his very first acts as president, Obama signed an executive order to close the military prison within a year. The one-year mark arrives today, and he will miss it by a wide margin, probably a year or more. He has not offered a new deadline.

Unless he decides to change course, the president must still find support in Congress to pay for a super-secure prison in Illinois for the detainees he wants to continue holding. He must also get additional money, probably hundreds of millions of dollars, to provide security to put some on trial in federal courts.

Since Obama took office a year ago, more than 40 detainees have been removed from the naval base in Cuba, sent off to their homelands or to other countries. If the administration cannot quicken that pace, it would take until a hypothetical second Obama term to empty the site.

But the recent attempted attack on a Detroit-bound airliner only gave further fuel to those urging the president to apply the brakes to the prison closure.

The young Nigerian accused in that attempt allegedly told investigators he was trained by Al Qaeda operatives in Yemen.

That detail has huge implications for closing Guantanamo, where about 90 of the remaining detainees are Yemenis, many with no clear place to go even if senior administration officials decide they can be released.

US officials are increasingly worried that the group that claimed responsibility for the bombing attempt, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, is so firmly entrenched in parts of that country that sending detainees back to Yemen could provide fresh troops to the terrorists.

The Obama administration, which sent a group of Yemenis home from Guantanamo days before the failed airliner bombing, has halted further transfers to Yemen for the near future.