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Obama pledge to close facility faltering

Solutions elusive to complex issues such as which detainees to release and where, which ones to put on trial

Globe and Mail Update

WASHINGTON — Closing the notorious offshore gulag at Guantanamo is proving far tougher for President Barack Obama than making stirring campaign promises about shutting down the prison complex.

Faced with mounting opposition at home and a lack of co-operation abroad, Mr. Obama is expected today to unveil a new policy that takes account of the grim political realities.

"We will never allow terrorists to be released into the United States," warned Senator Harry Reid, the Democratic Leader in the Senate and a crucial Obama ally if the President is to succeed in restoring the country's reputation, sullied by Bush-era security policies.

Closing Guantanamo may solve one image problem but the detainees have to go somewhere. Some are considered too dangerous to release. "The President hasn't decided where some of the detainees will be transferred," his spokesman, Robert Gibbs, conceded yesterday as the furor over Guantanamo grew.

Mr. Obama grabbed global headlines and near-universal accolades when, on his second day in the Oval Office, he ordered closed the prison complexes where hundreds of alleged terrorists, including a sole Westerner, Canadian Omar Khadr, have been held for years, most of them without charge. The President gave himself a year to make good on the pledge.

A vexed series of interlocking issues - which detainees to release and where, which ones to put on trial and what form the trials should take - has so far defied simple solutions.

"These are complex issues that the Obama administration has inherited and it's a bit early to begin assessing the performance," said Devon Chaffee, advocacy counsel for Human Rights First, who has monitored the Guantanamo military tribunals and authored Leave No Marks, a searing report on so-called enhanced interrogation methods.

Americans fear the prospect of hundreds of al-Qaeda operatives being brought to the United States, even if they are headed to maximum-security jails, although the administration is reported to be planning an announcement for this morning that Ahmed Ghailani, a high-value top al-Qaeda suspect held at Guantanamo, will be brought to trial for the embassy attacks.

Congress is refusing the millions needed to close Guantanamo, and other countries, including Canada, have proved stubbornly deaf to Mr. Obama's pleas to take some of the detainees.

To drive the point home, the Senate voted 90-6 yesterday, with huge majorities of both Republicans and Democrats agreeing to block Mr. Obama's request for $80-million to close Guantanamo.

It's a "$200-million state-of-the-art detention facility from which no one has escaped since 9/11," Republican Senator Mitch O'Connell said, adding, "Guantanamo is the perfect place for these terrorists."

Mr. Obama has been rolling back some of his security-related promises and struggling to make good on others. For instance, after first saying he backed the release of Bush-era photographs documenting the abuse of detainees by U.S. soldiers, he now wants them kept secret.

In February, the Obama administration's Justice Department backed the Bush position that detainees held at Bagram in Afghanistan had no recourse to U.S. courts.

It has similarly echoed the Bush argument that it needs to be able to continue wiretapping certain international telephone calls without bothering to get warrants.

Meanwhile, the hoped-for offers to take Guantanamo detainees have largely failed to materialize. Of the 240 currently in prison there, more than 150 are expected to be set free. France and Britain each have offered to take one.

The New York Times reported yesterday that an unreleased Pentagon report provides new details concluding that about one in seven of the 534 prisoners already transferred abroad from the detention centre in Guantanamo Bay has returned to terrorism or militant activity, according to administration officials.

The conclusion could strengthen the arguments of critics who have warned against releasing any more prisoners as part of Mr. Obama's plan to shut down the prison by January, 2010. Past Pentagon reports on Guantanamo recidivism, however, have been met with skepticism from civil liberties groups and criticized for their lack of detail.

The Pentagon promised in January that the latest report would be released soon, but Bryan Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman, said this week that the findings were still "under review."

Two administration officials who spoke on condition of anonymity said the report was being held up by Defence Department employees fearful of upsetting the White House, at a time when even Congressional Democrats have begun to show misgivings over Mr. Obama's plan to close Guantánamo.

Kenneth Roth, director of Human Rights watch, criticized Mr. Obama for abandoning his pledge to use U.S. federal courts or military courts martial for the trials of terrorists suspects.

"The military commissions system is flawed beyond repair. By resurrecting this failed Bush administration idea, President Obama is backtracking dangerously."

During the campaign, Mr. Obama called the military tribunals a "legal black hole" that "undermines the very values we are fighting to defend." Yet late last week, it was announced that, with minor tinkering, the widely discredited tribunals would continue to be used for the trials of terrorist suspects held at Guantanamo. The administration also admitted that it might continue to hold some alleged terrorists indefinitely without trial.

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