Obama seeks control of Gitmo

May 21, 2009 12:00 am

, WASHINGTON, May 21 – US President Barack Obama on Thursday aims to grab back the initiative in a riotous debate unleashed by his order to shut Guantanamo Bay, under political fire from critics and allies alike.

The president’s major national security speech comes on the heels of reports that the US government will bring a top al-Qaeda suspect held at Guantanamo to trial in New York.

Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, a Tanzanian accused in the 1998 US embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, would be the first former detainee at Guantanamo, the US naval base where some 240 terror suspects are held, to face trial in a civilian court in the United States.

And as Obama makes his speech, ex-vice president Dick Cheney will deliver his own address, leading Republican charges that Obama’s national security policies leave America vulnerable to terrorists.

The president has chosen the National Archives, which houses the US Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, to argue that his effort to reframe the legal front in the battle against terror honours bedrock US values.

But he will step to centre stage just a day after his plan to close the "war on terror" camp in Cuba slumped to a rebuke in the Senate, and following a tough FBI warning not to bring detainees to US soil.

Obama’s Democratic allies joined Republican critics in a lopsided vote that stripped 80 million dollars he requested to shutter the facility from a 91.3-billion-dollar war spending bill.

Still, the White House insists Obama will work with Congress to honour his vow to shut Guantanamo in January 2010, a year after taking office, as a cabinet-level committee works out how to honour the pledge.

Obama aides decry the heavily fortified encampment as a recruiting tool for Al-Qaeda and other extremist groups and a stain on the US image abroad.

But working out how to close the facility, and bring its inmates to justice, or send them to third countries, is proving a political headache.

Obama is under intense pressure to decide the fate of the detainees from 30 nations at the camp, many of whom have not been charged.

Some may be impossible to try – as their evidence may be inadmissible in court due to interrogation methods branded by critics as torture – but may also be judged too dangerous to release.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Tuesday that the speech would contain a "hefty" helping of Obama’s plans to try or disperse inmates, including a number of top Al-Qaeda terror suspects.

He backtracked slightly on Wednesday, saying Obama would provide a framework of "decisions that he knows have to be made in conjunction with other agencies in this administration, as well as members of Congress."

Republicans have battered the White House in the debate about Guantanamo and harsh CIA interrogation tactics now banned by Obama, seeking to wound the new president and portray majority congressional Democrats as weak on terror.

John Boehner, the top Republican in the House of Representatives, called on Obama to keep "all of the terrorists at the Guantanamo prison off American soil," tweaking skittish Democrats who fear a backlash from constituents if Al-Qaeda detainees enter US prisons in their state.

While under attack from Republicans seeking to make a rare dent in his political armour, Obama will also hope to lance the fury of his own supporters.

Many liberals and civil liberties groups were dismayed by his decision to reconstitute Bush-era military tribunals for terror suspects, despite deriding them as a failure during his election campaign.

Rights groups were also dismayed by the president’s announcement that he will attempt to block the release of new photos showing abuse of prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Cheney is scheduled to give a speech to the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think-tank, the latest in a string of appearances in which he has been highly critical of Obama’s anti-terror policies.

FBI Director Robert Mueller dealt another blow to Obama’s goal of shutting the prison by a self-imposed January 22, 2010 deadline on Wednesday, challenging Democratic assertions that maximum-security US prisons can safely hold accused terrorists.

"The concerns we have about individuals who may support terrorism being in the United States run from concerns about providing financing to terrorists, radicalizing others with regard to violent extremism, the potential for individuals undertaking attacks in the United States," he said.


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