Politics & Government

What to do about Guantanamo vexes both Obama, McCain

For months now, John McCain and Barack Obama have peppered their campaign speeches with pledges to close the Guantanamo Bay prison camps. Both have cast the detention center as harmful to U.S. foreign policy and a source of international alienation. Both say they would move the terrorism suspects to U.S. soil.

But delve a little deeper, and that's where the harmony ends.

An analysis of McCain campaign statements and policy proposals shows that the Vietnam-era prisoner of war would seek to beef up the Bush administration's detainee doctrine.

And Barack Obama would seek to dismantle some of its key tenets.

So much so that Obama welcomed the 5-4 U.S. Supreme Court decision June 12 that restored to war-on-terrorism captives at Guantanamo the right to sue for their freedom in U.S. courts.

The presumed Democratic presidential candidate called it "an important step toward reestablishing our credibility as a nation committed to the rule of law.''

In contrast, his Republican rival, McCain, echoed White House sentiment to condemn the Supreme Court for handing down "one of the worst decisions in the history of this country.''

''We made it very clear that these are enemy combatants,'' he said. "They do not and never have been given the rights that citizens of this country have.''

At McCain campaign headquarters, national security advisor Randy Scheunemann bristles at the notion that the Arizona senator has walked in lockstep with Bush administration policy.

Rather, Scheunemann said, McCain has been a maverick. He publicly advocated closure of the camps long before the Bush administration and has pledged in his campaign to do so to enhance this country's international standing.

''He saw the problems that were created in our international relationships — whether law enforcement or intelligence cooperation or in the image of the United States — certainly long before the Bush administration did,'' Scheunemann said.

On closure, he said, "It's not just an aspirational goal. It's an action item. Senator McCain has said he will close it. He hasn't couched it. He said it will be closed.''

Also at issue is how the Bush administration will tweak detention policy before ending its term. Bush has said that he, too, would like to close the prison camps.

None of the three men has said when.

Nor will they say, for sure, where they would move the prisoners for whom the State Department cannot negotiate repatriation or third-country resettlement.

By then, federal judges may have also started to weigh in on the constitutionality of another building block of Bush administration detention policy — the Guantanamo war court.

But McCain sees no obstacle to holding military commission trials in the United States, Scheunemann said. The Pentagon presently proposes to try 80 men.

The Obama campaign is short on specifics, and in response to questions was at times vague and contradictory.

Are the 265 war-on-terrorism captives enemy combatants? POWs? Suspected criminals captured overseas?

Obama doesn't say. Comments from his advisers suggest that an Obama administration would crack each man's military intelligence file to decide, on a case-by-case basis.

''Until a new administration has the ability to learn what we can't without the benefit of classified information about the nature of the detailed cases against each of these individuals, it would be sort of foolish to speculate,'' campaign foreign policy advisor Susan Rice said on National Public Radio.

At the heart of both candidates' commitment to closure is a working assumption that a new administration will have the goodwill to send a significant chunk of the 265 Guantanamo detainees who are there today to other countries.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates told Congress that in some cases, the administration was ''stuck'' with keeping captives at Guantánamo whom it would like to send away.

More than 100 of the men are from Yemen, Osama bin Laden's ancestral homeland, and the Bush administration is seeking assurances that the government of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh will design a reentry program similar to that of neighboring, wealthier Saudi Arabia.

The world also has largely rebuffed U.S. efforts to grant asylum or some sort of resettlement to others, such as 17 Muslims from China, for whom repatriation would mean repression.

The rest would be moved to U.S. soil.

Now that the Supreme Court has decided that the men are entitled to challenge their detention in federal courts, case-by-case review could take place in the United States — something that Bush administration lawyers thought they could avoid by detention in remote Cuba.

Neither campaign is willing to say where in the United States its candidate prefers to house the terrorism suspects.

McCain had often designated Fort Leavenworth, the U.S. military prison for criminal soldiers in Kansas. Then his fellow GOP senators from Kansas declared that the Sunflower State didn't want the detainees, was not suited to the mission.

Now the campaign describes that as an unsettled question — and says that McCain was only illustrating his point that he advocated continued military detention when he told Fox News Sunday in April, "I would move those detainees to Fort Leavenworth.''

Obama simply does not say.

His only known mention of Fort Leavenworth in campaign speeches was in reference to a family legacy: His grandmother worked on a bomb assembly line there in World War II, while his grandfather was a soldier overseas.

Plug ''Guantanamo'' into his website, www.barack obama.com, and it specifically says he would move the detainees to a military prison. "Those who are dangerous should be transferred to a secure military facility in the United States and brought to trial and swift justice.''

But when the campaign was asked whether he favored a specific spot, this was the reply:

"We have numerous facilities in both the military and civilian system, including maximum security prisons like Fort Leavenworth, that can be made to work once the decision is made to close Guantanamo.''

A key area of disagreement is on how to try the prisoners.

Not surprisingly, McCain has said he would continue to use the war court that he helped steer through Congress, after the Supreme Court struck down an earlier version created by the Bush administration without legislative approval.

The trials, now held in a corrugated-steel building on a former airfield at Guantanamo, Camp Justice, could be moved to the United States with minimal interruption, Scheunemann says.

The Pentagon proposes to try 80 of the detainees, and has so far sworn out charges against 20 of them — seven potentially facing the death penalty under a system that has U.S. military officers serve as judge and jury.

But the expeditionary legal compound has so far not prepared a place to carry out an execution.

Obama's campaign suggests that he would abandon commissions entirely, and use U.S. laws and courts that were already on the books before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to try terrorism suspects captured overseas.

''He will establish a fair and effective system for trying these detainees swiftly, either in courts martial or U.S. criminal courts,'' his campaign said.

And a retired Navy judge advocate general, Rear Adm. John D. Hutson — who says he has met with Obama on the topic — said the Illinois Democrat is serious about returning to traditional pre-9/11 justice.

''With a stroke of a pen, the administration could refer these to courts martial or U.S. District Court,'' he said. "It would have to be done in such a way that the American public and international community would recognize why — to ensure that any conviction or acquittal is legitimate.''

Such a policy might require suspension of a commission hearing already under way -- notably the death-penalty prosecutions of Khalid Sheik Mohammed, 43, and four other alleged co-conspirators in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

A Marine judge has slated pretrial hearings for the five men at Guantánamo in late September, the height of the political campaign season. The trial before U.S. military officers may not start, however, until after the November general elections.

''Obama has been quite clear that he would do it either in U.S. District Courts or court martial,'' Hutson said. "If the day before the inauguration, the case is given to the jury, would President Obama pull it out? I don't know. That's a hypothetical that's hard to answer.''