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Obama administration rushing to shrink ranks at Guantanamo


    In this Feb. 6, 2016 photo, a detainee cell in Camp 6 is seen inside the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Running out of time and options to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center, the Obama administration is scrambling to release as many prisoners as it can and considering novel legal strategies that include allowing some men to strike plea deals by video-teleconference and sending others to foreign countries to be prosecuted.

WASHINGTON >> The Obama administration is running out of time and options to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center in Cuba, so officials are scrambling to release as many prisoners as possible and considering novel legal strategies that include allowing some men to strike plea deals by video-teleconference and sending others to foreign countries to be prosecuted.

But it looks to be little, too late to close the prison before President Barack Obama leaves office in January, denying him the chance to fulfill a campaign pledge.

There’s the difficulty in transferring prisoners from the U.S. base in Cuba, questions about the legality of plea deals and solid opposition in Congress to anything that might help Obama achieve that promise.

“The clock has struck midnight and the American people have won,” said Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., who has said he would oppose any effort to move detainees to prison facilities in his state. “The president needs to admit that.”

Later this month, lawmakers are on track to extend a ban on moving detainees to U.S. soil. That would leave the president with no way to make the January 2017 deadline, barring an unexpected reversal in Congress or a politically explosive executive order.

The White House increasingly is pointed to a parallel strategy: trying to shrink the number of detainees in hopes of persuading lawmakers that Guantanamo is too expensive to sustain as a prison.

Of the 80 remaining detainees, 30 have been cleared for an overseas transfer. Most will leave starting in late June and continuing into July, according to a U.S. official. Those prisoners will go to a number of countries, including at least one in Europe, said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity because the administration had not authorized public release of the information.

Seven additional detainees are facing trial by military commission, including five charged with planning and supporting the Sept. 11 attacks. Three others have been convicted. But commission proceedings have gone on at a glacial pace. In April, the Pentagon put forward fresh proposals for Guantanamo, but none has been incorporated into defense legislation moving through Congress.

The remaining 40 were either at one time considered for prosecution or held as indefinite “law of war detainees” until the end of hostilities in the fight against terrorism that began after the 2001 attacks. The United States started using Guantanamo for suspects in January 2002; at its peak, the facility held about 680 prisoners.

U.S. officials have chipped away at those numbers through the Periodic Review Board, a multiagency task force that conducts parole-style hearings for men once deemed too dangerous to release.

The board did not hold a hearing until November 2013, but recently it has picked up its pace, holding more than 20 so far this year. Outcomes are leaning heavily in prisoners’ favor. If the government keeps up its current pace of about two per week, it wouldn’t complete hearings, much less arrange for transfers, until December.

The U.S. also is working with other governments to prosecute some detainees overseas, the official said. These could be prisoners accused of conduct outside the U.S. involving offenses against citizens of other countries. It would otherwise be difficult or impossible to prosecute these men in an American court.

One possible example would be Mohammed Abdul Malik Bajabu, a 42-year-old Kenyan accused of involvement in plots in Mombasa in November 2002: an attack on an Israeli-owned hotel, in which 13 people died, and an unsuccessful attempt to shoot down an Israeli airliner.

The official declined to identify any specific cases but said there could be five to 10 in all.

The defense bill up for debate in the Senate soon includes a provision that would allow detainees to enter guilty pleas — via video teleconference — in federal civilian courts. If a judge accepts the plea, the detainee would be sentenced and transferred to serve that sentence in a foreign prison.

In conversations with advocates, White House officials have said the Justice Department has reservations about such guilty plea proposals. Chief among the concerns is whether the judge could accept the guilty pleas as entered by the defendant knowingly and voluntarily — a bedrock principle of the American criminal justice system — while there is no mechanism in place to stand trial. The prisoner’s only other choice is continued, indefinite detention.

The White House has not taken a position, but suggested it is receptive to the idea. The president believes it is “important that we have available to us a variety of tools at our disposal,” National Security Council spokesman Myles Caggins said in a statement, which also noted that federal courts have “outstanding record” of handling terrorism cases.

Ramzi Kassem, a lawyer who has represented many Guantanamo prisoners over the years, including three still held, said the ability to strike a plea deal in federal court would benefit relatively few detainees. He said the renewed administration interest in closing the prison is hard to take seriously now.

“Those efforts and that kind of resolve should have been shown over the course of the eight years of the Obama administration and not in its final moments,” said Kassem, a law professor at the City University of New York.

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    • Actually it is our utterly dysfunctional, legend in their mind, backwards, clueless, self serving, elected bureaucrats in the congress and senate. The root of all that is wrong in the USA rests on their weak minds.

    • They already published his legacy in the Washington Post, but they are planning further volumes of his works of art. This must be one of the items in a future volume displaying his superiority as a prophet.

      • Good question. “China’s navy will send five ships to join a major U.S.-hosted naval drill this summer, even as tension mounts between the world’s two largest economies over the South China Sea.”

  • Obama has been weak and sympathizes with the terrorists. Obama has been a big act and nothing more. His presidency has been a big failure. Obama has paved the way
    for Donald Trump to become President. He has been the biggest asset to the Trump campaign. It is too bad that he will spend more of the tax payers money having another
    vacation in Hawaii at Christmas with his family and friends. Hopefully this will be his last visit. Good riddance to him and his cronies. There are many campaign promises that
    he made and knew that he could’t fulfill.

  • Don’t forget that Bush released 532 Guantanamo prisoners. If there are legitimate charges against the prisoners, move them to US prisons and try them in US courts. The continued existence of Guantanamo is a prime recruiting tool for terrorists. As recent reports have shown (Washington Post: “The government has secretly destroyed evidence that is relevant to the death penalty trial of the five Guantánamo Bay detainees accused of aiding the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001”), the show trials that are being held in Guantanamo violate both US and international law as well as the Geneva Convention.

      • No, Hitler would have been tried at Nuremberg, just like Martin Borman, Hermann Goring, Rudolf Hess, Albert Speer and 200 other Nazis. Since 9/11, 60 federal district courts in 37 states have tried more than 500 terrorists while only 8 have been tried by military tribunals – and 4 of those convictions were later overturned. 443 terrorists who were convicted in US courts are currently detained in US prisons, including Zacarias Moussaoui, an Al Qaeda member directly linked to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, is in a superman prison, as is Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, one of the Boston Marathon bombers, Richard Reid, the shoe bomber, and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the underwear bombe.

        • The ignorance here is shocking. How can an adult not know about the Nuremberg trials? This forum gets more sad every day.

  • This was one of Obama’s major campaign promises when he first ran for president, so it looks like he’s trying to check off all of his “to do” stuff before he gets out of office even though congress is bucking him every step of the way.

    • Obama promised to reduce health care premiums by 3,000% and look what has happened. Skyrocketing premiums, co-pays and deductibles, all with narrower health care coverage. Obamacare has abjectly failed on all fronts. It only insured a few million more people, all at the cost of ruining healthcare for 150 times as many people as it has helped.

      • Obama is not entirely to blame for the failure of Obama-Care.
        Those sho believed and voted for him are the real villains.

        Those are the “Because he’s one of us” voters.

        • Since editing isn’t allowed, here’s a correction:

          Instead of: “Those sho believed and voted for him are the real villains.”

          I meant: “Those who believed and voted for him are the real villains.”

        • Of course. He won two elections by wide margins, but you know “the real truth.”

          You. The one who writes comments like this and the other nonsense you write every day knows better.


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