Top former US military officials are lobbying for US President Barack Obama to advance plans to close the controversial military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Working with the human rights group Human Rights First, more than a dozen former US military officials are meeting this week with top Obama officials including Attorney General Holder, Pentagon officials and lawmakers to press them to quickly close the Guantanamo prison, which has been the target of international condemnation.
The officials yesterday sought to counter arguments made by critics of the closure plan.
“It’s the use of fear that I find so disturbing,” retired Army General David Maddox told Reuters, arguing no terrorism suspects or convicts have escaped from jail and that the detainees would not be released into the United States after they served their sentences.
Obama pledged to close the facility by January 22, 2010, but has run into political, legal and diplomatic obstacles which could delay the closure. That has allowed a fierce debate to fill the breach as the administration tries to tackle those issues.
The administration is near selecting a place inside the United States to move the terrorism suspects from Guantanamo, some of whom will face charges in military tribunals or US criminal courts, but that has sparked several concerns.
Some congressional Republicans question whether US prisons can accommodate terrorism suspects and warn that their presence in prisons in the United States could cause attacks. But Obama officials and Democrats have said 200 individuals convicted on terrorism charges are already in US prisons.
So far, Congress has withheld money from the administration to close Guantanamo and demanded a detailed plan before allowing the detainees to be brought to U.S. soil for permanent detention.
Failing to follow through on his pledge to quickly close the prison one of his first acts after taking office on January 21 could hurt Obama’s standing with his more liberal backers and put his future agenda at risk.
“There are just lots of issues that fear is being used inappropriately so we wanted to come back together again and try to help put the record straight,” Maddox said.
Administration officials have declined to identify the final options for housing the detainees in the United States, but one official has said two possibilities were likely out: a maximum-security prison in Standish, Michigan, set to close, and Fort Leavenworth, Kansas where opposition was fierce.
“Most of the opposition has been ‘not in my backyard’,” said retired Lieutenant General Charles Otstott.
One problem that has also plagued the administration is that confessions by some of the 223 detainees now at Guantanamo were obtained through coercion, such as pouring water on them to simulate drowning, a technique known as waterboarding.
The military officials said that prosecutors may still be able to charge them with crimes that were not admitted to in the confessions. They may also have other evidence in hand.
Already, the Justice Department transferred one detainee from Guantanamo to New York to face charges in a criminal court Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, who has been accused of involvement in the 1998 bombings of US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya that killed 224 people.
Additionally, charges are already pending against Khalid Sheikh Mohammed for his alleged involvement in a plot to blow up commercial airliners in the 1990s. US
officials have acknowledged waterboarding him 183 times.
“You’re going to look at the totality of that file and pick and choose according to what is admissible, and what isn’t it,” retired Brigadier General James Cullen told Reuters.
“You know what your end goal is, you want to prosecute these guys, that’s the preferable option.”
Pic: Prisioners at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba