Obama to speak Thursday about Guantanamo closing

Wednesday, May 20, 2009 | 10:57 p.m. CDT

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama finds himself in a political bind — at home and abroad — on closing the Guantanamo Bay prison and will be trying to work out of the tight spot with a major address on national security Thursday.

Obama takes on the explosive topic a day after the U.S. Senate — at the behest of his own majority Democrats — pulled Obama's funding request to close the prison in a rare bipartisan defeat for the popular president.

The vote comes as Obama tries to persuade allies to accept Guantanamo detainees, and makes the task of convincing skeptical countries even more difficult than it already is. Although France has accepted one prisoner, fulfilling a promise made when Obama attended a NATO summit in April, other European allies have refused outright or given nonspecific commitments.

At the same time, it marked a victory for Senate Republicans, who have turned their attention to Obama's policies on terrorism and foreign policy after failing to make headway in criticizing his economic program.

They have dubbed the decision to close Guantanamo a security misstep, an argument that appears to have swayed Democrats.

It also is likely to provide an opening to former Vice President Dick Cheney, who was deeply involved in the Bush administration's development of Guantanamo policy and who is giving his own speech Thursday at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

Cheney has been an unprecedentedly outspoken critic of Obama and his plans for closing the prison, saying the new president's policies are making Americans less safe.

Obama announced on his second day in office that within one year he would close the prison constructed by the Bush administration at the U.S. naval base in Cuba. Vastly unpopular abroad, the prison holds terrorism suspects, most of them captured in Afghanistan.

The Obama administration argued the lockup had become a "recruiting poster" for al-Qaida because prisoners were being held indefinitely without charges and some were subjected to "enhanced interrogation," including waterboarding — a technique Obama has called torture.

But when prisons close, inmates must either be released or sent to other jails, and Obama still "has not decided where some of the detainees will be transferred," spokesman Robert Gibbs said Wednesday.

That's the nub of Obama's problem with both U.S. politicians and America's allies abroad. With Wednesday's action in the Senate, both houses of the U.S. Congress have refused Obama's request for $80 million to fund the prison's closing, citing a lack of specific plans about where to house inmates who are considered too dangerous to be released or transferred to other countries.

Following the lead of the House of Representatives, Democrats in the Senate pulled the funding request, taking cover behind the lack of specific plans from the White House and, like Republicans, retreating from an uproar in their home districts over the possibility that terror suspects would be housed in local prisons.

That's a fairly empty sales pitch for administration officials who are trying to persuade European and Muslim allies to take in some of the detainees.

Ken Gude, an associate director of the Center for American Progress, a think tank close to the administration, said that the White House had been caught off guard by the resistance to its Guantanamo plans in Congress. But it is still early in the administration's 12-month time line for closing the facility.

"If Congress were ultimately to bar detainees from coming to the United States, that would be a challenge," he said. "But we are a long way from that point."

Still, the White House got no help Wednesday, when FBI Director Robert Mueller told Congress that bringing Guantanamo detainees to the United States could pose a number of risks, even if they were kept in maximum-security prisons.

Gibbs and Attorney General Eric Holder quickly responded that Obama would never do anything to endanger Americans.

In addition to Guantanamo plans, Obama's speech at the National Archives is expected to touch on his recent decisions to withhold Bush-era memos on and pictures of enhanced interrogations, the decision to continue using military commissions to try some terror suspects and other legal issues surrounding handling of the prisoners.

Obama came to office pledging a dramatic change in former President George W. Bush's terrorism policy. In the months since, he has woven an uncertain course, occasionally angering liberals.

Organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union have become noisy critics of the administration as the president has backed away from expunging military tribunals from the tool kit for handling prisoners.

Concerns on that front were sufficient Wednesday that Obama met in the White House with ACLU Executive Director Anthony D. Romero and representatives of the Center for Constitutional Rights, Human Rights Watch and other such organizations.

"I left the meeting feeling discouraged that President Obama plans to continue with many of the same policies of the Bush administration," Romero told The Associated Press.

Romero described the meeting as unprecedented and voiced chagrin that word of it had been leaked to reporters.

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