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Roadblocks May Keep Guantanamo Prison Open

U.S. troops walk the grounds of the Camp Justice compound, the site of the U.S. war crimes tribunal, at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in 2009. A bipartisan group of nine senators has proposed legislation that would require accused Sept. 11 terrorists to be tried in military courts. (AP)

Tuesday morning on Capitol Hill, senators staged a photo op the White House had hoped not to see: Republicans and Democrats stood shoulder to shoulder to announce their opposition to trying alleged Sept. 11 plotters in civilian courts.

"It's exactly what I hear from my constituency," says Blanche Lincoln, a Democrat from Arkansas. "These are criminals, they're war criminals, and they need to be tried in military courts."

The proposed legislation is co-sponsored by six Republicans, along with Lincoln, Democratic Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia, and independent Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut. It is the latest in a series of roadblocks Congress has built in President Obama's path to closing Guantanamo, increasing the likelihood that the prison could remain open for years to come.

Last January, Matthew Waxman of Columbia Law School wrote an opinion piece in Foreign Policy magazine with the headline, "Closing Guantanamo Is Way Harder Than You Think." Waxman handled detainee affairs for the Pentagon under President Bush, and a year into the Obama presidency, his assessment in Foreign Policy seems prescient.

"The U.S. government has been wrestling with these issues for a long time," Waxman said in an interview. "The Obama administration brought some new energy and commitment to the issue, but some of the underlying problems still remain."

Those problems include finding countries willing to take detainees, figuring out how to try detainees accused of crimes, and setting up a system to hold people who will neither be tried nor released.

The administration has said it wants to house some detainees at the Thomson Correctional Center in Illinois. President Obama's budget provides for $237 million to buy, renovate and staff Thompson. At the budget rollout Monday, Justice Department officials said they won't have the cash in hand to buy the prison until October of this year, at the earliest. Add six months to upgrade the facility, factor in congressional resistance, and the timeline for closing Guantanamo could easily slip into the next presidential election.

"It was an explicit campaign promise of the president," says Robert Raben, who was a senior Justice official in the Clinton administration, "so it's a problem."

Raben has advised the Obama White House on many issues, though not Guantanamo. He believes the Obama administration "heavily misjudged" how difficult it would be to close the prison.

"The organizing principle [of the campaign] was hope and change," says Raben. "The organizing principle was not a blueprint for how this many Yemenis would be transferred to Yemen, and this many Afghans would be sent to Afghanistan."

While there are strong political reasons for the White House to push for a quick conclusion to the Guantanamo saga, Human Rights First CEO Elisa Massimino says there are national security reasons, as well.

"This is not just a slogan or a campaign promise," Massimino said in an interview. "Every day that Guantanamo remains open, it is being used as a recruiting tool for al-Qaida, and it undermines the ability and the willingness of our allies to join with us in fighting the terrorist enemy."

The White House regularly says the president remains committed to closing Guantanamo.

Some national security experts believe the debate over whether and when Guantanamo closes misses the point.

"Where [detainees] are ought not to be driving the debate," says Bobby Chesney of the University of Texas Law School. He served as an adviser to the Obama administration's detention policy task force. "We should be focused on whether we have a consensus about how they should be held, what the screening mechanism should be, what the conditions ought to be, regardless of where it is."

But for better or worse, Chesney says, "the public debate has focused extraordinarily closely on the fact of Guantanamo itself."

It is a debate that, despite the administration's most ardent wishes, appears unlikely to end anytime soon.

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

On Capitol Hill this morning, a photo op the White House did not want to see. Republican and Democratic senators stood shoulder to shoulder to announce their opposition to trying 9/11 plotters in civilian courts. This proposed legislation is the latest in a series of roadblocks Congress has built along President Obama's path to closing Guantanamo.

NPR's Ari Shapiro reports on the prospect that the prison could remain open for years to come.

ARI SHAPIRO: President Obama blazed through his one year deadline to close Guantanamo. And now evidence is growing that the prison may not close anytime soon. This morning Democratic Senator Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas explained why she opposes the administration's plan to try 9/11 plotters in civilian courts.

Senator BLANCHE LINCOLN (Democrat, Arkansas): I think I would be tone deaf if I didn't respond to both the people who I believe are very concerned about how this is happening and if I wasn't speaking out.

SHAPIRO: Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina added...

Senator LINDSEY GRAHAM (Republican, South Carolina): It's hard to bring people of New York City and Little Rock together, but they've managed to do that.

SHAPIRO: A year ago, Matthew Waxman of Columbia Law School wrote an opinion piece in Foreign Policy magazine with the headline "Closing Guantanamo Is Way Harder Than You Think." Waxman handled detainee affairs at the Pentagon under President Bush.

Professor MATTHEW WAXMAN (Columbia Law School): The U.S. government has been wrestling with these issues for a long time. And the Obama administration brought some new energy and commitment to the issue. But some of the underlying problems still remain.

SHAPIRO: Those problems include finding countries willing to take detainees, figuring out how to put detainees accused of crimes on trial and setting up a system to hold people who will neither be tried nor released.

The administration has said it wants to house some detainees at Thomson prison in Illinois. President Obama's budget provides for $237 million to buy, renovate and staff Thomson. At the budget rollout yesterday, justice officials said they won't have the cash in hand to buy the prison until October of this year at the earliest. Add six months to upgrade the facility, factor in congressional resistance and the timeline for closing Guantanamo could easily slip into the next presidential election.

Mr. ROBERT RABEN (Former Senior Justice Official, Clinton Administration): It was an explicit campaign promise of the president and, excitedly, his first week in office set a timetable for one year for it to be closed. So, it's a problem.

SHAPIRO: Robert Raben was a senior Justice official in the Clinton administration. And he has advised the Obama White House on many issues, though not on Guantanamo. He believes President Obama heavily misjudged how hard this task would be when he talked about closing Guantanamo during the campaign.

Mr. RABEN: The organizing principle was hope and change. The organizing principle was not a blueprint for how this many Yemenis would be transferred to Yemen, this many Afghans would be sent to Afghanistan.

Ms. ELISA MASSIMINO (President, Human Rights First): This is not just a slogan or a campaign promise.

SHAPIRO: Elisa Massimino is president of Human Rights First. And she says closing Guantanamo is a national security priority.

Ms. MASSIMINO: It's not a matter of, you know, A for effort. But, look, every day that Guantanamo remains open, it is being used - we know - as a recruiting tool for al-Qaida. And it undermines the ability and the willingness of our allies to join with us in fighting the terrorist enemy.

SHAPIRO: The White House, for its part, regularly says the president remains committed to closing Guantanamo. Some national security experts believe the debate over whether and when Guantanamo closes misses the point.

Bobby Chesney from University of Texas Law School was an adviser to the Obama administration's detention policy task force.

Professor BOBBY CHESNEY (University of Texas Law School): Where they are ought not to be driving the debate, we should be focused on whether we have a consensus as to how they should be held, what the screening mechanism should be, what the conditions ought to be, regardless of where it is. But that's not really where the debate has been for six or seven years now. For better or worse, the public debate has focused extraordinarily closely on the fact of Guantanamo itself.

SHAPIRO: And it now looks likelier than ever that that debate may continue into the next presidential race.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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