- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 7, 2009

President Obama on Friday met with families of victims of al Qaeda terrorist attacks, telling them that terror suspects would not be a danger if they were moved to the U.S., reaffirming his commitment to closing Guantanamo Bay, but saying he is still open to military commission trials.

Mr. Obama’s early executive orders halting military commission trials and setting a deadline for closing the terrorist detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, had infuriated family members of victims of the 2000 attack on the USS Cole and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

But Friday’s meeting swayed those family members, who said Mr. Obama was giving them a role in helping him decide how to handle terror suspects.

“I did not vote for the man, but the way he conducts himself, the way he talks to you, you can’t help but believe in him,” said John Clodfelter, whose son was one of 17 American sailors killed on the Cole by Muslim suicide bombers. “I think this president has the possibility of being one of our best presidents.”

About 40 family members of victims met with Mr. Obama for about an hour, and several who went in skeptical came away agreeing with the president’s contention that the current legal process has failed because the attack perpetrators have not been convicted after eight years.

According to a White House statement about the private meeting, Mr. Obama “made it clear that his most important responsibility is to keep the American people safe. He explained why he believes that closing Guantanamo will make our nation safer and help ensure that those who are guilty receive swift and certain justice within a legal framework that is durable, and that helps America fight terrorism more effectively around the world.”

In addition to closing the Guantanamo Bay facility within a year, Mr. Obama has ordered a 120-day delay in all trials while his staff decides how to revamp the military commissions former President George W. Bush set up to try terror suspects.

“I didn’t hear the terrible things I expected to hear,” said Peter Gadiel, whose son died in the Sept. 11 attacks and who is president of 9/11 Families for a Secure America.

He said Mr. Obama didn’t rule out the possibility of still having military commissions and promised that detainees wouldn’t have a free hand to access classified material during any proceedings. He also said Mr. Obama told them “it’s unlikely that they will get all the constitutional protections” of a U.S. citizen even if they are tried in the U.S.

Mr. Gadiel said the president also told the families he would do his best to craft ways of ensuring detainees who were subjected to harsh interrogation techniques some have described as torture will still be convicted.

Asked about the danger in moving detainees to U.S. soil, Mr. Gadiel said Mr. Obama told them it was easier to attack “a mall in Virginia” than to strike a federal prison.

“I’m a Reagan Republican. I don’t like to be fooled and either he did a really good job of fooling me or he’s an honest man who wants to do the right thing. And I don’t know the answer to that,” Mr. Gadiel said.

The family members said Mr. Obama made a mistake in not consulting them before halting trials and setting a deadline for closing the prison. And they said they will judge the president by the details of how he meets those two goals.

But even Mr. Obama’s harshest critics from just 24 hours earlier appeared to have been mollified.

On Thursday, after the Pentagon said it would be dropping charges against Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, suspected of masterminding the Cole bombing, the commanding officer of the Cole at the time blasted the decision as a rash disregard for the existing military commissions.

By Friday night, after meeting with Mr. Obama, retired Navy Cmdr. Kirk S. Lippold was enthusiastic.

“For the first time, families, military families and families from 9/11 are going to have a seat at the table to be able to help this administration,” he said.

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