Guantánamo proving a political headache for Obama

United States President Barack Obama on Thursday aims to grab back the initiative in a riotous debate unleashed by his order to shut Guantánamo Bay, under political fire from critics and allies alike.

And as the president makes a major national security speech, ex-vice president Dick Cheney will deliver his own address, leading Republican charges that Obama’s national security policies leave the US vulnerable to terrorists.

Obama chose the National Archives, which houses the US Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, to argue that his effort to reframe the legal front in the battle against terrorism honours bedrock US values.

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

Obama’s Democratic allies joined Republican critics in a lopsided vote that stripped $80-million he requested for shutting the facility from a $91,3-billion bill to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to October 1.

Still, the White House insists Obama will work with Congress to honour his vow to shut Guantánamo within a year of taking office, as a Cabinet-level committee works out how to honour the pledge.

Obama aides decry the heavily fortified encampment as a recruiting tool for al-Qaeda 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.

Obama is under intense pressure to decide the fate of the 240 prisoners 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 in court due to interrogation methods branded by critics as torture—but are judged too dangerous to release.

Obama’s spokesperson Robert Gibbs said on Tuesday that the speech would contain a “hefty” helping of Obama’s plans to try or disperse inmates, including a number of top al-Qaeda terror suspects.

Gibbs backtracked slightly on Wednesday, saying 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 Guantánamo and harsh CIA interrogation tactics now banned by Obama, seeking to wound the new president and portray majority congressional Democrats as weak on terror.

“The president ... has an opportunity to outline a comprehensive strategy for keeping [the US] safe,” said John Boehner, the top Republican in the House of Representatives.

Boehner called on Obama to keep “all of the terrorists at the Guantánamo prison off American soil,” tweaking skittish Democrats who fear a backlash from constituents if al-Qaeda detainees enter US prisons in their state.

While under attack from Republicans seeking to make a rare dent in his political armor, 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.

Civil liberties 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.

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

FBI Director Robert Mueller dealt another blow to Obama’s goal of shutting the prison by a self-imposed January 22 2010 deadline on Wednesday, 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.—AFP

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