Obama set to outline Gitmo strategy amid rising worries

McClatchy NewspapersMay 20, 2009 

WASHINGTON — President Obama on Thursday will lay out a defense of his national security policies and assure Americans he won't let terrorists loose in the U.S. as he looks to ease fears about closing the detainee facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, by next January.

In his speech at the Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom at the National Archives — the location where the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and Bill of Rights are displayed — Obama will declare that he'll stand by his order to close Guantanamo by Jan. 22, 2010, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said on Wednesday.

Obama also will talk about recent national security decisions that have angered human rights groups, including using a revised military commission process to try detainees and withholding photos detailing alleged detainee abuse.

White House officials declined to detail what exactly the president will say about the possibility of transferring some of the 240 detainees in question to federal or military prisons in the United States - or concerns about freeing some into U.S. communities.

Aides also declined to preview what Obama would say about the government's right to indefinitely hold some detainees, or whether he is considering keeping Guantanamo open for military commission proceedings once its long-term detention facility is closed.

The speech comes two weeks before Obama travels to Egypt to address Muslims worldwide, with the recognition that mistreatment of Muslim prisoners at Guantanamo and other locations has helped inflame opinion in the Islamic world against the United States.

The national security speech also follows a Wednesday vote in which Senate Democrats joined Republicans in a 90-6 vote to formally block $80 million in funds to close the prison and block detainee transfers to the U.S. until Obama provides more details. The Senate also voted, 92-3, to require a so-called threat assessment of every detainee held at Guantanamo.

Obama also will talk about the state secrets privilege, which has allowed President Bush and now Obama's own administration to shield terrorism information that could be used in lawsuits against the government. Obama has previously said he thinks current law is overly broad and should be reined in, but hasn't said how.

On Guantanamo, the president "hasn't decided where some of the detainees will be transferred," Gibbs said, adding that Obama will seek input from Congress as well as from an administration task force looking into the matter. In addition, ongoing court cases are shaping the administration's options on a case-by-case basis.

Overall, Gibbs said, Obama would use the speech to "lay out the framework on many of those decisions." He said Obama would not say anything specifically about Charleston, S.C., or Ft. Leavenworth, Kan., home to two prisons near populated areas that have been speculated to be in play.

Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a Republican who supports closing Guantanamo's detention facility but maintains the detainees should remain in military prisons, said he expects many unanswered questions to remain after the speech, including what will happen to dozens of detainees who the U.S. likely can't force to stand for criminal trials.

But Graham said at a minimum what Obama must do is "reassure the American people that he does not view the detainees at Guantanamo Bay as common criminals who robbed a liquor store. They're accused of taking up arms against the United States."

Obama and White House Counsel Greg Craig met Wednesday with several members of civil liberties and human rights organizations to ask for their trust and patience as Obama focuses on "the long-game."

The president did not reveal details about his speech, however, according to participants.

Vince Warren, executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, who attended the meeting, praised the president for meeting with the dozen or so groups but said he came away "very disappointed" about the administration's view on military commissions and other policies.

Warren declined to reveal the content of the discussions because of an agreement with the White House, but said, "I'm struggling to see the difference between what the Obama plan is and what the Bush legacy is."

On the other end of the spectrum, FBI Director Robert Mueller on Wednesday told a congressional panel he saw several risks in transferring detainees to U.S. prisons.

And Republicans continued predicting detainees would wind up in United States prisons and later threaten neighborhoods around the nation.

"They ought to be held right where they are," said Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., "in a place that is safe and secure, that is state of the art, where they receive the very best of treatment, where no one has ever escaped, hundreds of miles from American communities and neighborhoods."

Some Democrats are urging Obama to reconsider as well.

Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla., a House Intelligence Committee member, wants more transparency. "The major argument against keeping it open is the way people are being held," he said, so the administration should winnow the population and place those who it can.

As for the rest, let them stay, Hastings said. "We should let groups like the Red Cross and Amnesty International in to see what's going on."

A federal judge ruled Tuesday that the U.S. could hold some terror detainees now at Guantanamo indefinitely without their day in court, if they were deemed to have participated in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks or were Taliban or al Qaida members.

But Attorney General Eric Holder, speaking with reporters at a news conference about Medicare fraud said he didn't believe Guantanamo would stay open in any shape or form.

"I think that given the progress that we have made, given the benefits that we will reap from closing Gitmo, among those being that it removes from al Qaida one of their chief recruiting tools, it will bring us closer together with our allies. Given all of those things, I think that it is still our intention and I think we will meet that goal that the president has set to close Gitmo by late January of next year."

(William Douglas, Lesley Clark and Nancy Youssef contributed to this report.)

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