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US Senate vote not last word on Guantanamo

With President Barack Obama showing the way, some US Senate Democrats are signaling a willingness to permit transferring terrorism suspects from Guantanamo Bay to prisons in the United States despite a high-profile vote to the contrary.

world Updated: May 23, 2009 17:52 IST

With President Barack Obama showing the way, some US Senate Democrats are signaling a willingness to permit transferring terrorism suspects from Guantanamo Bay to prisons in the United States despite a high-profile vote to the contrary.

Most notable among them is Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who spent the week sending out confusing signals on just where he stood. "We are wanting and willing to work with" the president to come up with a solution to the detainee controversy, the Nevada Democrat said Thursday, a statement that conspicuously left open the possibility that some detainees would eventually be incarcerated in US prisons.

Only two days earlier, Reid had adamantly told reporters he opposed the release of any of the detainees into the United States. On Wednesday, he joined 89 other lawmakers in both parties who voted to prohibit their transfer.

The 90-6 vote also denied Obama the funds he requested to close the Navy-run detention center in Cuba, which was set up by the Bush administration and has become a highly controversial symbol of the former president's terrorism policies.

Obama and many Democrats favor closing the facility, saying it has become a recruiting tool for al-Qaida. But doing so leaves open the fate of most of the 240 men held there.

Some Democrats grumbled that Obama's team had left them exposed politically in the run-up to Wednesday's vote. Sen. Daniel Inouye, the Hawaii Democrat who is chairman of the Appropriations Committee, spoke at one point of the administration lacking a "coherent plan."

Initially, Senate Democrats, who hold a majority, had hoped to finesse the issue. They drafted legislation that allowed Obama's use of the funds to close Guantanamo after he presented a plan that outlined steps for dealing with the detainees held there. But under significant pressure from the Republican leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, and other GOP senators, Democrats backpedaled.

They stripped out the funds altogether and voted with Republicans to bar the "transfer, release" or incarceration of any Guantanamo detainee in the United States.

"I think it is a perfect place, given the unique nature of the war on terror," McConnell said Thursday. "Having said that, the president, I assume, has the authority to close it if he'd like to.

And if he's going to close it, then he needs a plan." Within 24 hours of the Senate vote, Obama sought to reframe the issue, accusing unnamed critics of fear-mongering and resorting to "words that, frankly, are calculated to scare people rather than educate them."

At the same time, he made it clear he intends for some of the detainees to be incarcerated in the US. "Where demanded by justice and national security, we will seek to transfer some detainees to the same type of facilities in which we hold all manner of dangerous and violent criminals within our borders, namely highly secure prisons that ensure the public safety."

Some terrorists, he pointed out, have already been tried in federal courts, found guilty and sent to prison. "No one has ever escaped from one of our federal, supermax prisons, which hold hundreds of convicted terrorists," Obama said.

In addition to Reid, other Democrats who voted to ban the transfer of detainees to the United States said after Obama's speech, they are willing to consider the plan the president eventually presents.

"We need for the administration to come to the legislative branch with a well-thought out plan, and then for us to have a conversation," said Democratic Senator Tom Carper. Asked whether that meant he was unalterably opposed to permitting detainees to enter US prisons, he repeated it was up to the White House to outline its plan first.