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Obama remains committed to closing Gitmo

The first court conviction of a Guantanamo Bay detainee makes it increasingly likely that President Obama's campaign promise to close the prison will remain unmet when his term expires.
Image: courtroom drawing of Tanzanian Ahmed Ghailani
Tanzanian Ahmed Ghailani, 36, faces a minimum sentence of 20 years after his conspiracy conviction in the first civilian trial of a former Guantanamo Bay inmate. He was found not guilty on a slew of charges including conspiracy to plot with al-Qaida to kill U.S. citizens in the attacks against the Tanzania and Kenya embassies, in which 224 people died. Shirley Shepard / AFP - Getty Images
/ Source: staff and news service reports

President Barack Obama is still determined to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, despite criticism over his civilian prosecution of terror suspects, the White House said on Thursday.

"The president remains committed to closing Guantanamo Bay to ensure that it is no longer the recruiting poster that it is right now for al-Qaida," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told a news briefing.

A civilian jury on Wednesday acquitted a man once held at Guantanamo of all but one of 280 charges related to the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa.

Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani still faces a minimum sentence of 20 years for conspiring in the attacks in Kenya and Tanzania that killed 224 people. 

Critics say the verdict raised questions over the administration's ability to successfully prosecute remaining Guantanamo Bay terrorism suspects, and what that meant for the facility's eventual closure.

Obama has already failed to meet an election campaign pledge to shut it down in the first year of his presidency and transfer its inmates to prisons in the United States.

In some ways, the conviction was a vindication for an administration that believes the judicial system established by the Constitution has proved itself capable of handling terrorism cases. And predictions of new terrorist attacks and huge police expenses surrounding the trial never materialized.

Ghailani now faces 20 years to life in prison, longer than three of the four sentences handed down by military tribunals at Guantanamo Bay.

Justice Department spokesman Matthew Miller described the outcome in the case against Ghailani as "another in a long line of verdicts where federal civilian courts have shown the ability to deliver fair trials and long sentences."

Miller told reporters that the administration will continue to rely on a combination of civilian courts and military commissions.

"We make those decisions based on facts, based on the law," he said. "And we'll continue to work through that with the detainees who are still at Guantanamo." Miller did not discuss how any specific detainee would be handled.

But opponents of Obama's plans to try terrorism suspects in civilian courts immediately seized on the split decision as evidence that the administration's plans were misguided and naive.

"This is a tragic wake-up call to the Obama administration to immediately abandon its ill-advised plan to try Guantanamo terrorists" in federal civilian courts, Rep. Peter King told The New York Times. "We must treat them as wartime enemies and try them in military commissions at Guantanamo."

King is a New York Republican who is expected to be the next chairman of the Homeland Security Committee when Republicans take control of the House early next year.

The administration had hoped for an overwhelming conviction to help ease congressional opposition to Obama's long-stymied plan for moving the detainees to U.S. soil. The administration must notify Congress before any transfer, and Republicans have said they would block such efforts.

"There's no way they're going to get it now that Republicans are in charge," King said of the plans to try detainees in the U.S.

Harder to close prison
Despite the acquittals in Ghailani's case, which included murder counts for each of the 224 people killed in the bombings, the Justice Department said it was pleased he faces up to life in prison and said it would seek that sentence.

And some in favor of the government's use of the federal court system for detainee trials said the verdict should not be looked upon as a disaster.

Mason Clutter is one such proponent. Counsel of the Rule of Law Program at the Constitution Project, a bipartisan non-profit group, she told The Times that Ghailani will be in prison for a long time and have fewer avenues for appeal than had he been tried in the military system.

"The system worked here," she told the newspaper. "I don't think we judge success based on the number of convictions that were received. I think we judge success based on fair prosecutions consistent with the Constitution and the rule of law."

Clutter added that many of the arguments usually used to reject civilian trials in favor of military tribunals, such as high security costs, defendant's grandstanding and release of classified information, did not come to pass in this case.

Still, senior officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss private discussions, conceded that the one-count conviction, combined with big electoral wins for Republicans this month, will make it harder to close the prison.

Handful of options
Administration officials believe there are only a handful of options for closing Guantanamo Bay:

  • Prosecute the detainees. Some, like Ghailani, could face criminal trials. Others could face military commissions. Regardless, the administration wants those trials in the U.S., not at Guantanamo.
  • Transfer some prisoners to other countries. Many already have been cleared for release. But Yemeni citizens make up the largest contingent, and the U.S. doesn't trust Yemen to monitor them if they are released. Two failed airline bombings originating in Yemen in the past year have made such release efforts even more difficult.
  • Hold prisoners indefinitely. Top administration officials have said they don't like the idea but would consider it in some form, if the detainees were held inside the U.S. with some review by courts.

Ghailani's conviction does not make any of those options easier. When Obama announced, days after his election, that he would close Guantanamo within a year, he had hoped to move detainees to a refurbished old prison in Illinois.

Even if, somehow, that plan were to get resurrected early next year, much of 2011 would be spent renovating the facility. Actually transferring detainees would get pushed back to 2012, a presidential election year in which political differences are amplified and compromises are rare.

The Ghailani case also did little to resolve the question of what will happen to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and the other masterminds of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists attacks.

The Justice Department had planned to prosecute those cases in civilian courts, but the administration reversed course amid political opposition. The move left a sour taste with some prosecutors, who felt the White House was letting political considerations influence the department, a criticism Democrats often lobbed at President George W. Bush.

Ghailani, like Mohammed, was held for years in a secret CIA prison overseas and received some of the harshest interrogation tactics. His trial was seen as a test of whether those actions would sink the case or whether prosecutors could salvage a conviction.

A federal judge prohibited prosecutors from calling a key witness in the Ghailani case, saying the witness had been identified while Ghailani was interrogated at the CIA prison.

Prosecutors could face the same challenge in the Sept. 11 trials, though many have been asking for years to plead guilty.

Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a Republican who is seen as key to any deal to close Guantanamo, said late Wednesday that he was disappointed by the Ghailani verdict and said the government was endangering the nation "by criminalizing the war."

"We are at war with al-Qaida," Graham said. "Members of the organization and their associates should be treated as warriors, not common criminals."