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Congress presses Obama for Guantanamo plan

Democrats have denied funding to close prison

Admiral Michael Mullen also pressed the president for details on how he intends to close the detention facility in Cuba. Admiral Michael Mullen also pressed the president for details on how he intends to close the detention facility in Cuba. (Lauren Victoria Burke/ ABC News)
By Philip Elliott
Associated Press / May 25, 2009
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WASHINGTON - Members of Congress from both parties clamored yesterday for President Obama to develop a plan for dealing with the suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay if he intends to fulfill his promise to close its prison by early 2010. The top US military officer also awaited a decision from the commander in chief.

"We're saying, 'Mr. President, give us the plan,' " said Senator Barbara Boxer, Democrat of California.

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen, pressed Obama for details on how he intends to fulfill his promise to close the detention facility on the US Navy base in Cuba. Officials report that 240 suspected terrorists are housed there.

"We're working hard now to figure out what the options are and what the best one would be. And that really is a decision the president is going to have to make, certainly in meeting this deadline of what we do," Mullen said.

Obama's promise to close the detention facility by early 2010 ran smack into political reality in the past week. Obama's fellow Democrats denied him funding to move the suspected terrorists, while Republicans latched onto a message that helped the minority GOP drive sustained headlines for the first time in months.

"Well, I don't think you can convince the American people that you can bring the people from Gitmo to their states and they will be safe," said Senator Richard Shelby, a Republican.

The not-in-my-backyard chorus drove Obama to deliver a speech defending his decision to close the facility, proposed during the campaign and delivered during his second full day in power. Yet lawmakers and Obama's advisers remained unsure after the speech of how, exactly, the president would make good on his vow to close the symbol of the United States' detention of suspected terrorists in a legal limbo.

When Obama didn't specify the mechanics for closing the prison, his allies were left scratching their heads and his critics asking why the need to shut it down, given that some of the prisoners were likely to go to scaled-down versions of Guantanamo anyway.

"I don't know why it is better to have somebody in a so-called supermax facility in, say, Colorado than it is to keep them in Guantanamo, a state-of-the-art facility that we built not too long ago for the explicit purpose of holding these people," said Senator Jon Kyl, Republican of Arizona. "There's nothing wrong with the prison in Gitmo, and there are a lot of problems - as FBI Director [Robert] Mueller pointed out in testimony just this week - with bringing those people to the United States."

Mueller told Congress it would be risky to relocate Guantanamo prisoners to US facilities, giving House and Senate Democrats an opening to oppose Obama's request for $81 million to close Guantanamo without a detailed accounting of where the detainees will go.

Newt Gingrich, a former House speaker and a Republican, said the site should stay open "until the war is over." When pressed, Gingrich acknowledged it's a long-term prospect.

"You have people out there today who want to kill Americans, who would like to set off a nuclear weapon in an American city, who would like to set off a truck bomb down the street from where we are right now," he said. "What do you do with somebody who's a dedicated, religiously motivated terrorist? You had better keep them locked up."

Obama's options in dealing with the prisoners have led him in a circle back to the Bush-era policies he decried. Although the United States has in its domestic prisons many individuals convicted of terrorism, an influx of suspected terrorists onto the US mainland is a political challenge.