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the sun rises over the Guantanamo detention facility
Obama's plans to close the Guantanamo prison camp have run into difficulties at homeImage: AP

Political headache

May 22, 2009

The US president says he will not release Guantanamo detainees who still pose a threat to national security. But -- with Europeans hesitant to step in -- the White House is under increasing pressure to find a solution.


The US president's order to close the Guantanamo Bay prison by January 2010 was hailed by Democrats, Republicans, civil-rights groups and the European Union, but has since encountered stiff opposition from all sides on the question of what to do with the remaining 240 detainees.

In a speech at the National Archives in Washington, Obama accused Congress of using fear as a political tactic in voting to block the transfer of any of the detainees to prisons on US soil.

"I've heard words that are calculated to scare people rather than educate them - words that have more to do with politics than protecting our country," Obama said on Thursday, May 21.

His own center-left Democrats joined the minority Republicans in the staggering 90-6 defeat of an $80-million (58-million-euro) spending request to begin closing the controversial naval prison.

Political headache

Standing in front of the Constitution, President Barack Obama delivers an address on national security, terrorism, and the closing of Guantanamo Bay prison
Obama's speech was symbolically staged in front of the US constitution at the National ArchivesImage: AP

Working out how to shut down the facility and either try inmates or send them to third countries has proved to be a political headache for the young Obama administration.

Forty-eight terror suspects currently held at Guantanamo Bay are waiting to be released to other nations as part of the White House effort to empty the Cuba-based prison without bringing all its inmates to the United States, US officials said on Thursday.

But European countries have been reluctant to step in and accommodate the detainees because they are believed to be posing high security risks. Only two prisoners have been released since January to US allies Britain and France.

"My administration is in ongoing discussions with a number of other countries about the transfer of detainees to their soil for detention and rehabilitation," Obama said.

What would the voters say?

Guantanamo detainees pray before dawn near a fence of razor-wire
US lawmakers fear a voter backlash if Guantanamo inmates end up in their constituenciesImage: AP

US lawmakers, on the other hand do not want to see any of the detainees end up in their home states or districts in fear of a potential backlash from their voters. They have argued that transferring the prisoners to US soil would place the American public at risk.

Obama countered that keeping Guantanamo open would further damage the US image in the world and undermine the war on terrorism.

"The problem of what to do with Guantanamo detainees was not caused by my decision to close the facility," Obama said. "The problem exists because of the decision to open Guantanamo in the first place."

According to the US president, Guantanamo has already weakened American national security.

"It is a rallying cry for our enemies," Obama said. "It sets back the willingness of our allies to work with us in fighting an enemy that operates in scores of countries. By any measure, the costs of keeping it open far exceed the complications involved in closing it."

Cheney strikes back

US Vice President Dick Cheney
Dick Cheney still champions the Bush administration's war on terrorImage: AP

Former vice president Dick Cheney, who has hit the airwaves in recent weeks to defend the policies during the Bush years, shot back in a speech at the conservative American Enterprise Institute in Washington that began minutes after Obama concluded his.

Cheney credited congressional Democrats for joining Republicans to criticize Obama over Guantanamo, and argued there were no good alternatives to keeping the prison open. He accused Obama of making a snap decision to close Guantanamo without considering the consequences.

"The administration has found that it's easy to receive applause in Europe for closing Guantanamo," Cheney said. "But it's tricky to come up with an alternative that will serve the interests of justice and America's national security."

Democrats insist that Obama first provide a plan before they dole out the money, but the president offered up few new details in his speech on Thursday. He did, however, say that some of the detainees will be brought to prisons inside the United States.

According to Obama, the maximum-security facilities in the United States are adequate for holding dangerous detainees, and already house hardened criminals and previously convicted terrorists.

"If we try those terrorists in our courts and hold them in our prisons, then we can do the same with detainees from Guantanamo," Obama said.


Editor: Nick Amies

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