White House

White House allies say Obama bungled Guantanamo closing

A detainee stands outside a fenced recreation area at the Camp Delta detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, on July 7, 2004.
A detainee stands outside a fenced recreation area at the Camp Delta detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, on July 7, 2004. Pete Souza / Chicago Tribune

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama's decision to close the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, military prison by Jan. 22 was followed by a series of mistakes and missteps by his administration that will delay the prison's closure for months, according to a report from a policy organization with close ties to the White House.

Those mistakes — which ranged from initially having too few people on board to handle the workload to misreading Congress — have put the timetable months behind schedule and will push the prison's closure well beyond the January deadline, which Obama announced with great fanfare two days after he took office.

The White House declined to comment on the report.

The administration is expected to announce within days the results of its review of legal cases against the remaining detainees at Guantanamo, a review that originally was scheduled to be finished in July. Among its conclusions, the administration is expected to say whether it will prosecute the accused 9/11 mastermind and four alleged co-conspirators in a federal civilian court.

"We hope we'll see the announcement very soon on the 9/11 case, that they're going to prosecute Khalid Sheik Mohammed and the other conspirators in federal court," said Ken Gude, a scholar at the Center for American Progress and the author of its new report on Guantanamo. The liberal policy organization enjoys close relations with the Obama administration, which has hired several of its scholars for senior positions.

In his study, Gude said the White House made mistakes in implementing the high-profile Guantanamo policy from the very beginning.

"It was always going to be difficult, but some unforeseen obstacles were thrown in its path, and the new administration made some mistakes that have cost time and sucked energy away from the core mission of closing the prison," he said in the report.

Two task forces — one set up to study the case files of the more than 200 detainees still held at the prison and the other charged with examining the overall detention policy — fell behind almost from the start.

A key problem was that the Obama administration was hours old and didn't have enough people to follow through quickly after Obama announced the closing plan. Those who were there couldn't find needed files quickly.

"The task forces struggled right out of the gate," Gude said in the report.

Then, he said, they made a critical mistake by not moving quickly to move some detainees out of Guantanamo. For example, he said, the administration should've worked with the Virginia congressional delegation to smooth the way politically to release a group of Uighurs to Northern Virginia, where there's a community of the Chinese Muslims.

"They could have put that together in six to eight weeks," Gude said in an interview. "It would have taken some of the sting out of the criticism of bringing them into the United States."

With little groundwork done to move some Guantanamo detainees to the U.S. or elsewhere, the Obama administration made what Gude called its "biggest mistake" in April by asking Congress for $80 million to finance the prison closing.

"Asking Congress for money for Guantanamo opened the door for conservatives on Capitol Hill, and the Obama administration was caught completely off guard when they began aggressively pushing back against the funding," Gude said in his report.

Gude called the backlash "ridiculous" because it was based on the implied argument that the country's maximum security prisons couldn't hold terrorists transferred from Guantanamo and that the closing of Guantanamo thus would endanger Americans.

Nonetheless, Gude said, "The White House failed to support its allies in Congress that were willing to push back against the fear mongering. The lack of early backing from the administration sealed the defeat. The result was a blowout, with Congress overwhelmingly voting to bar the release of any Guantanamo detainees into the United States and placing severe restrictions on any other kinds of transfers."

That also made it harder for the U.S. to convince other countries to take some of the detainees, either for release or detention.

"Many American allies are willing to help the United States and accept detainees, but quite reasonably expected the United States to share in the responsibility," Gude wrote. "It is a hard sell for America's allies to tell their citizens that they are accepting Guantanamo detainees even though the U.S. Congress feels that they are too dangerous for release in America."

Gude thinks the prison will be closed, and noted that 16 countries now have accepted or pledged to accept some of the detainees there.

However, he and the Center for American Progress, which is headed by former Obama transition chief John Podesta, urged several steps to get the closing on track. They include:

_ Setting a new deadline of July, rather than simply letting the January deadline slip.

_ Prosecuting the alleged 9/11 conspirators in federal court and limiting military commissions to what they called battlefield crimes.

_ Limiting military detention to those captured in combat zones and using criminal law to try those captured "far away" from any battlefield.

_ Sending those convicted in federal courts to maximum security prisons in the U.S., and sending those remaining in military custody to the prison at Bagram air base in Afghanistan.


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