The Australian : Obama to confront anger over order to shut Guantanamo Bay

Friday, May 22, 2009

Obama to confront anger over order to shut Guantanamo Bay

Agence France-Presse | May 21, 2009

BARACK Obama will today use a national security speech to attempt to quell concern on both sides of politics over his order to shut Guantanamo Bay.

The President has chosen the National Archives, which houses the US Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, to argue his effort to reframe the legal front in the battle against terror honours bedrock US values.

But he will step to centre stage just a day after his plan to close the “war on terror” camp in Cuba suffered a rebuke in the Senate, and following a tough FBI warning not to bring detainees to US soil.

Mr Obama's speech comes on the heels of reports that the US government will bring a top al-Qa'ida suspect held at Guantanamo to trial in New York.

Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, a Tanzanian accused in the 1998 US embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, would be the first former detainee at Guantanamo, the US naval base where 240 terror suspects are held, to face trial in a civilian court in the United States.

The speech comes as an unreleased Pentagon report _ cited in The New York Times _ concludes that about one in seven of the 534 prisoners already transferred abroad from Guantanamo Bay has returned to terrorism or militant activity.

And as Mr Obama makes his speech, ex-vice president Dick Cheney will deliver his own address, leading Republican charges that Mr Obama's national security policies leave America vulnerable to terrorists.

Mr Obama's Democratic allies joined Republican critics in a lopsided vote that stripped $US80 million dollars he requested to shutter the facility.

Still, the White House insists Mr Obama will work with Congress to honour his vow to shut Guantanamo in January 2010, a year after taking office.

Obama aides decry the heavily fortified encampment as a recruiting tool for al-Qa'ida and other extremist groups and a stain on the US image abroad.

But working out how to close the facility, and bring its inmates to justice, or send them to third countries, is proving a political headache.

Mr Obama is under intense pressure to decide the fate of the detainees from 30 nations at the camp, many of whom have not been charged.

Some may be impossible to try - as their evidence may be inadmissible due to interrogation methods branded as torture - but may also be judged too dangerous to release.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said earlier this week the speech would contain a “hefty” helping of Mr Obama's plans to try or disperse inmates, including a number of top al-Qa'ida terror suspects.

Mr Gibbs backtracked slightly yesterday, saying Mr Obama would provide a framework of “decisions that he knows have to be made in conjunction with other agencies in this administration, as well as members of Congress”.

Republicans have battered the White House in the debate about Guantanamo and harsh CIA interrogation tactics now banned by Mr Obama, seeking to wound the new president and portray majority congressional Democrats as weak on terror.

John Boehner, the top Republican in the House of Representatives, called on Mr Obama to keep “all of the terrorists at the Guantanamo prison off American soil”, tweaking skittish Democrats who fear a backlash from constituents if al-Qa'ida detainees enter US prisons in their states.

While under attack from Republicans seeking to make a rare dent in his political armour, Mr Obama will also hope to lance the fury of his own supporters.

Many liberals and civil liberties groups were dismayed by his decision to reconstitute Bush-era military tribunals for terror suspects, despite deriding them as a failure during his election campaign.

Rights groups were also dismayed by the president's announcement that he will attempt to block the release of new photos showing abuse of prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Mr Cheney is scheduled to speak to the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think-tank, the latest in a string of appearances in which he has been highly critical of Mr Obama's anti-terror policies.

FBI Director Robert Mueller dealt another blow to Mr Obama's goal of shutting the prison by a self-imposed January 22, 2010 deadline by challenging Democratic assertions that maximum-security US prisons can safely hold accused terrorists.

“The concerns we have about individuals who may support terrorism being in the United States run from concerns about providing financing to terrorists, radicalising others with regard to violent extremism, the potential for individuals undertaking attacks in the United States,” he said.