- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 10, 2012

A decade after the first terrorism suspects arrived at Guantanamo Bay and three years after President Obama pledged to close the facility, the prison remains a lightning rod for politicians and human-rights advocates, as well as a thorn in the side of the administration.

Protesters from across the country will descend Wednesday on Washington to mark the 10th anniversary of the prison’s opening with a Lafayette Park rally across the street from the White House that will call on President Obama to make good on his campaign promise to shutter the prison.

On Tuesday, a group of more than two dozen retired generals and admirals, many of whom stood with Mr. Obama in the Oval Office as he signed an executive order in 2009 to close the facility within one year, renewed their call for the president to once again make the issue a priority.

“We understand the political opposition you have faced in closing Guantanamo, but you too bear responsibility for failing to do so,” they wrote in a letter to the president. “Your policy of holding detainees indefinitely, perhaps forever, without charge or trial, not only stands in the way of closing Guantanamo, but is insupportable in a nation of laws.”

Several senior members of the military and national security and intelligence communities, including CIA Director and former Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, for years have argued for closing the facility as a way to restore international credibility to the U.S. legal system and eliminate a terrorist-recruiting tool.

Earlier this week, White House spokesman Jay Carney reaffirmed Mr. Obama’s support for closing the Guantanamo Bay prison, pointing to forces outside his control that have prevented it.

“The commitment that the president has to closing Guantanamo Bay is as firm today as it was during the campaign,” Mr. Carney said.

But closing the Guantanamo Bay lockup has been a political albatross for the president. Members of Congress across the partisan divide have repeatedly thwarted attempts to shut down the facility in Cuba and move the detainees to U.S. soil.

The latest came in December when the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee broke with Mr. Obama and struck a deal with Republicans on the contentious issues of handling and prosecuting terrorism-suspect detainees, provisions included in a major defense policy bill.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat, defied a veto threat from Mr. Obama and teamed up with Sen. John McCain, the panel’s ranking Republican, to give custody of al Qaeda operatives captured in the U.S. to the military, even if they are American citizens. The agreement gives the administration a waiver — allowing it to hand the detainees over to civilian authorities — when there is a prevailing national security interest.

The Obama administration’s plans to close the Guantanamo Bay prison first ran into stiff opposition in Congress in 2009 when Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. announced plans to try Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the self-declared mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, in New York civilian courts.

Rep. Peter T. King, New York Republican, as well as several New York Democrats including Sen. Charles E. Schumer, vigorously opposed the decision, arguing it would cost the city millions for security arrangements and give “KSM” a public platform to voice anti-American vitriol.

The Illinois and Michigan congressional delegations also fought Obama’s efforts to move Guantanamo Bay detainees to prison facilities in their states.

The administration’s plans for trying terror suspects have been in limbo ever since, exacerbated by the acquittal in the fall of 2010 of Ahmed Ghailani, a Guantanamo detainee charged in the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, on all but one of the 284 charges against him.

The political consequences of closing Guantanamo weren’t always so grim.

At the beginning of the Obama presidency, Sen. Lindsey Graham, a reservist in the military’s Judge Advocate General program, had served as a point-man on the administration’s efforts to close Guantanamo Bay, which he and Mr. McCain, and previously President George W. Bush, had agreed needed to be shuttered.

But Mr. Graham, the main architect of the 2006 military commissions law, wanted to couple the closure with comprehensive legislation creating a whole new legal structure to deal with detainees, an effort the White House opposed.

The Obama administration’s failure to work with Congress to clarify detainee laws, Mr. Graham has said, led the military to kill suspected terrorists on the battlefield or through drone strikes, foreclosing the possibility of interrogating the suspects and gleaning crucial intelligence.

Advocates for closing the facility put the onus on Mr. Graham and his colleagues. Because Congress has tied the president’s hands on the issue, they argue, it’s Congress’s responsibility to find a solution beyond simply keeping Guantanamo Bay open and the status of its 171 remaining detainees in limbo.

“It’s been 10 years after 9/11 and it’s getting into a year after Osama bin Laden was killed,” said Heather Hurlburt of the liberal-leaning National Security Network. “We’re going to have to have a conversation about the right ways to protect us now — that Gitmo no longer serves us and what the post-post 9/11 era is going to look like.”