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Why The Plan To Close Guantanamo Backfired

Detainees kneel during an early morning Islamic prayer at the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, on Oct 28.
John Moore
Detainees kneel during an early morning Islamic prayer at the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, on Oct 28.

The Obama administration has struggled to control the narrative on closing Guantanamo and civilian trials for the plotters of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

The plan to close the prison has run into steady resistance from Congress in the past year, and this week, a bipartisan group of senators introduced a bill to prevent civilian trials for the Sept. 11 plotters. If the law were to pass, it would severely interfere with the president's plan to close the prison.

In 2008, Obama as well as President Bush and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) all supported closing Guantanamo. Now administration officials are wondering how they lost so much ground in the debate, and they are blaming each other.

'Getting Muzzled'

Obama established a wide network of people within his administration who are working to close Guantanamo. Interagency working groups include people from the Pentagon, CIA, Justice, State, Homeland Security and more. It is hard to overstate how frustrated many of those people feel with the White House right now.

Officials who described their frustration spoke anonymously to frankly describe internal dissent.

One government official outside the Justice Department gave an example from almost a year ago: Members of Congress had introduced a bill that would bar Guantanamo detainees from coming to the United States. Justice officials wanted to go to Capitol Hill to persuade lawmakers not to vote for the bill. But the White House said no, arguing that it would distract from other administration priorities, like the stimulus package and health care.

When it came time to vote on keeping Guantanamo detainees out of the U.S., the measure passed with bipartisan support. It was a political punch in the face for the Obama administration.

According to several officials, this has been a pattern. One said, "We keep getting muzzled by the White House, then clobbered by Congress." Another complained, "This administration has a particular way of handling things where problems build, the White House ignores it, things get out of control, then Obama gives a big speech and everyone chills out for a little while." Someone else said, "We've fought hard on this, and the White House hasn't. They don't want to talk about this."

The administration rejects that description, saying it has fought hard. On Sunday, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs was on CNN and political adviser David Axelrod was on NBC. Both were making the case for trying terrorists in the civilian criminal justice system.

"The Bush administration tried 190 or more terrorists in that system," Axelrod told Meet The Press. "During that period [House Minority Leader John] Boehner and others had nothing to say about that. They were all supportive."

People outside government who are familiar with the White House's thinking privately say it is true that the White House has prevented the Justice Department from fully engaging in this debate. According to these sources, the White House believes the Justice Department screwed up by losing the support of New York's police commissioner and mayor for a high-profile terrorism trial in New York.

Making A Case

The Justice Department says it was not its fault, because Police Commissioner Ray Kelly and Mayor Michael Bloomberg were publicly for the trial of professed Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed before they were against it.

All of this finger-pointing and backbiting helps Republicans in Congress, such as South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham.

"I am convinced closing Guantanamo Bay would be a good thing for our national security, if you did it in the right way," Graham said in an interview.

He is one of the co-sponsors of the bill that would prohibit civilian trials for the Sept. 11 suspects. Graham, who is a military lawyer, has supported Attorney General Eric Holder at times. They parted ways, Graham says, over Holder's decision to try Mohammed in civilian court.

"I'll be honest with you," Graham says. "I think when Eric Holder — who I like a lot and is a smart guy — when I asked him about the difference between the civilian criminal justice system and the law of armed conflict, I don't think he gave a very persuasive case."

Jamie Gorelick, who was deputy attorney general in the Clinton administration, says this is "the sort of finger-pointing that you see in Washington when something blows up. We've seen this before."

She is not surprised at the resistance the president has encountered to his plan for closing Guantanamo.

"When President Bush was taking the position that Guantanamo should be closed, it was like Nixon going to China. It was an obvious position for Democrats and not an obvious position for Republicans," says Gorelick. "So now that we have a Democratic president, the reluctance of Republicans to criticize that position has disappeared."

But the administration's strategy may be changing. Next week, administration officials are scheduled to meet with lawmakers on Capitol Hill. They will talk about the president's plan to close Guantanamo, making a case similar to the one the White House prevented them from making almost a year ago.

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