Obama detainees pledge raises concerns in South Carolina

McClatchy NewspapersNovember 21, 2008 

WASHINGTON — South Carolina lawmakers are mobilizing against the possible transfer of terrorist suspects from the Guantanamo Bay military prison to the Charleston naval brig under President-elect Barack Obama’s pledge to close the controversial U.S. facility in Cuba.

Rep. Henry Brown, a Hanahan Republican whose 1st Congressional District includes the Consolidated Naval Brig, introduced a bill Wednesday that would block the use of federal funds to move Guantanamo detainees to Charleston.

"Bringing these extremely dangerous war criminals, deemed too high of a threat to be sent home, would add an unnecessary terrorist threat to our community," Brown said.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Seneca Republican who played a leading role in establishing military tribunals at Guantanamo, also opposes holding any or all of its 262 remaining detainees in the Charleston brig.

"It doesn't make sense to hold them in an urban center like Charleston," Graham said. "We should recognize that where they are detained will automatically become a terrorist target."

Obama in recent days has said that fulfilling his campaign vow to shut down the Guantanamo Bay prison will be an early priority after he takes office Jan. 20.

"I have said repeatedly that I intend to close Guantanamo, and I will follow through on that," Obama told CBS News. "I have said repeatedly that America doesn't torture, and I am going to make sure that we don't torture. Those (steps) are part and parcel of an effort to regain America's moral stature in the world."

Brad Berenson, a former White House lawyer under Bush who worked with Obama on the Harvard Law Review almost two decades ago, said the new president will likely come to appreciate the many legal and logistical complexities of closing Guantanamo.

"During the campaign, it may have been easy to criticize the Guantanamo detentions at a high level of generality," Berenson said. "But once elected, the president has to answer the question of what to do with specific people about whom we know specific things. What seemed simple before (taking office) may seem a lot harder."

One complexity is that the U.S. government has cleared more than 60 of the Guantanamo detainees for release, but the governments of other countries where they have lived don’t want to accept them.

The Charleston naval brig has held three alleged terrorists since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. It is the only installation on U.S. soil known to have housed men the government claims are tied to the attacks.

Ali al-Marri, a Qatar native, has been held for 5 ½ years in almost total isolation at the Navy brig in Charleston. He has challenged his detention in a case now before the Supreme Court.

"The idea of treating him as a military prisoner who can be held indefinitely without charge or trial is a ludicrous and unprincipled assertion of executive detention power," said Jonathan Hafetz, an American Civil Liberties Union who is representing al-Marri.

Hafetz, who has visited al-Marri in the Charleston brig more than a dozen times, said he will be disappointed if Obama closes Guantanamo and transfers its detainees to other prisons.

"That would be putting a Band-Aid on a festering wound," Hafetz said. "The way to end it is simply to terminate the failed system."

Even if Obama makes shuttering Guantanamo one of his first acts as president, Pentagon sources say it would take at least two years to prepare another site to house its detainees and accompanying scores of U.S. military and intelligence officials.

President Bush set up the Guantanamo Bay prison for terrorist suspects after the Sept. 11 attacks and the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan the following month.

The Supreme Court voided the system of military tribunals Bush had established to prosecute the Guantanamo detainees, compelling Congress to pass a 2006 measure that created special commissions and more detailed procedures for trying them.

In a blow to Graham, an Air Force Reserve lawyer who helped craft the military-commissions bill, the high court ruled in June that the Guantanamo terrorist suspects have habeas rights to challenge their detention in U.S. federal court.

Obama aides declined to say Friday whether his transition team has asked the Defense Department for information to help prepare for closing Guantanamo and moving its detainees elsewhere.

"He will make decisions about how to handle detainees as president when his national-security and legal teams are in place," said Brooke Anderson, an Obama spokeswoman.

Obama "believes that the legal framework at Guantanamo has failed to successfully and swiftly prosecute terrorists," Anderson said.

Navy Cmdr. Jeffrey Gordon, a Pentagon spokesman, said: "The Defense Department continually plans for a wide variety of contingencies. However, we do not discuss those plans."

Gordon referred further questions to Obama aides.

A senior Pentagon source said the Charleston naval brig is one of three U.S. military installations that have moved to the forefront as the most likely future home for Guantanamo detainees.

The other two leading candidates are Fort Leavenworth, an Army base in Kansas, and Camp Pendleton, a Marine Corps base in California, according to the source.

At least one of the three military installations has held a recent meeting to plan for the possible housing of Guantanamo detainees, the source said.

Graham and Brown believe that Fort Leavenworth is a more suitable destination than the Charleston naval brig because it already has a maximum-security military prison and is farther from an urban area.

That notion doesn't sit very well with fellow Republican Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, who has scheduled a Dec. 4 visit to Forth Leavenworth to discuss the issue with military officials there.

"Department of Defense officials have informed me that Fort Leavenworth is not a good place to house detainees," Brownback said Thursday.

Berenson, the former Bush lawyer, said there are good reasons to be concerned about where the detainees are moved if the Guantanamo prison is closed.

"Most of the detainees would love nothing more than to kill an American, even if that American is a fellow prisoner," Berenson said. "So you cannot put them in a general population. And you especially cannot put them in a general population of American military personnel."

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