A year later, Obama falters on pledge to shut Guantanamo
When President Barack Obama took office, one of his first acts was to order within a year the closure of the Guantanamo Bay prison for holding suspects in the war on terrorism.world Updated: Jan 14, 2010 09:24 IST
When President Barack Obama took office, one of his first acts was to order within a year the closure of the Guantanamo Bay prison for holding suspects in the war on terrorism. The directive, which came two days after his inauguration, was welcomed worldwide after years of allegations that the prison violated civil rights.
Obama said repeatedly during his election campaign that Guantanamo tarnished US credibility and vowed to shut it down. But as the Jan 22 deadline approaches, Obama has acknowledged the goal will not be met, with officials conceding that closing the facility on the US naval installation in Cuba has proven more challenging than believed.
"The logistics of it have proven more complicated than we anticipated," Defence Secretary Robert Gates has said.
There are nearly 200 prisoners currently locked up at Guantanamo. Since Obama took office, his administration has been able to send more than 40 to other countries, but the pace has been slow and many nations are reluctant to take more.
In trying to close Guantanamo, the Obama administration has had to resolve a broad array of legal, diplomatic and political complexities while coping with sharp criticism from conservatives and opposite-minded civil rights groups.
A task force headed by the Justice Department has spent the year evaluating the cases, trying to determine which detainees can be prosecuted; which can be released to another country; and which fall into a controversial third group: too dangerous for release but cannot be tried. A senior administration official has said none have so far been identified as belonging in that controversial third category.
The Pentagon has so far identified more than 100 detainees as eligible for release, but only a handful of countries have been willing to resettle the prisoners, and when they do it's only in very limited numbers.
Further complicating the problem was the Dec 25 Al Qaeda bomb plot on a US airliner. The Nigerian suspect has reportedly told US authorities that he received training in Yemen. About half the remaining population at Guantanamo are Yemeni.
The US government has been increasingly concerned about Al Qaeda's growing presence in Yemen, heightened by the indication that the Christmas Day attack originated from the Arabian Peninsula country. Obama quickly announced that he was blocking the transfer of any detainees to Yemen, including reported plans to send 34 more to the country.
According to the Pentagon, the rate of released Guantanamo detainees heading back into Al Qaeda's ranks has climbed, including some who joined the terrorist group in Yemen.
"When these Gitmo detainees find their way back on the battlefield ... they form the core of people who want to attack the United States," Pete Hoekstra, the ranking Republican on the House intelligence committee, said on CBS television.
In the wake of the attack, there is mounting opposition in Congress to funding Obama's plan to relocate the Guantanamo detainees to a prison in Illinois. Federal control of the state-owned Thomson Correctional Centre, which lies about 240 km west of Chicago, has emerged as a cornerstone of the policy to empty the cells at Guantanamo.
Republicans have sharply criticised the move, saying bringing the detainees to the US is a security threat. Some Democrats facing re-election this year have expressed similar concerns following the airline plot.
"The president's decision to move dozens of terror suspects from the Guantanamo Bay detention facility to an Illinois jail is another mistaken step in this administration's stubborn insistence to turn the global war on terror into a law enforcement effort," Republican Senator George LeMieux said.
Obama has also endured fierce criticism from civil rights groups which only a year ago praised his announcement to close Guantanamo. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sharply opposes Obama's position that some detainees can be held indefinitely without charges.
"The creation of a Gitmo North in Illinois is hardly a meaningful step forward," Anthony Romero, the ACLU executive director said. "Shutting down Guantanamo will be nothing more than a symbolic gesture if we continue its lawless policies onshore."
Obama has remained steadfastly committed to closing Guantanamo. He said his decision to block the transfer of detainees to Yemen will not deter shutting down the prison. "Make no mistake. We will close Guantanamo prison, which has damaged our national security interests and become a tremendous recruiting tool for Al Qaeda," he said.