by Faiz Shakir, Amanda Terkel, Satyam Khanna, Matt Corley, Benjamin Armbruster, Ali Frick, Ryan Powers, and Pat Garofalo
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Two days after entering office, President Obama issued an executive order announcing his intention to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba within one year. Obama's order called for a cabinet-level panel to grapple with issues including what locations inside the United States prisoners might be moved to and which courts they could be tried in. But Obama's efforts hit a roadblock yesterday when the Senate voted 90 to 6 to approve an amendment barring the use of funds to transfer detainees to the U.S. Though Democrats in Congress are supportive of closing Guantanamo, they said that they planned to "withhold the money until the White House settles on a comprehensive plan for dealing with detainees." "The feeling was at this point we were defending the unknown," said Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL). "We were asked to defend the plan that hasn't been announced," he said. Ken Gude, the the Associate Director of the International Rights and Responsibility Program at the Center for American Progress, explained to TalkingPointsMemo yesterday that "Congress, on the legislative calendar, got ahead of Obama on this." "It's the kind of problem you have when you have two different tracks moving, but not at the same rate," Gude said. Though Republicans have responded to the move with glee, Obama is not backing down from his pledge to close the prison. In a speech at the National Archives today, the president answered "critics of his dismantling of Bush-era policies on detention and interrogation" and urged "Congress to be patient while the administration explores options for relocating Guantanamo detainees."
CONSERVATIVES WANT TO KEEP GITMO OPEN: Immediately after Obama finished speaking today, former Vice President Dick Cheney attempted to "answer" Obama with a speech at the American Enterprise Institute. Appearing on CBS's Face The Nation recently, Cheney argued that keeping Guantanamo open was "important" because if captured detainees were brought to the United States, they would "acquire all kinds of legal rights." Cheney is not the only voice calling for Guantanamo to be kept open indefinitely. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has been attacking Obama for weeks over the closure of Guantanamo. According to Politico, McConnell "has needled the president about the issue in 16 floor speeches, a Washington Post op-ed, several Sunday shows, weekly stakeouts, and a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Feb. 27 that kicked off the effort." In his Washington Post op-ed, McConnell claimed that "there are no good alternatives to Guantanamo." After the Senate vote yesterday, McConnell crowed about the new "bipartisan agreement on Guantanamo." But Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-HI), who sponsored the amendment to block the funds, emphasized yesterday that the measure was not a rebuke of Obama's intention to close the prison, telling the Washington Post that it was "not a referendum on closing Guantanamo."
FEARMONGERING ABOUT TERRORISTS IN THE U.S.: One of the main arguments put forward by Obama's critics is that the U.S. prison system can't handle terrorist detainees. On CNN yesterday, Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) said that he didn't think that U.S. prison facilities "could keep some of these detainees secure, at the same time, protecting the surrounding communities." When CNN's Kiran Chetry noted that "a number of people who have been convicted on terrorism-related charges in U.S. courts" have "been held in our U.S. prisons," Inhofe argued that "those individuals who are actually criminals, they actually committed crimes and were not involved in the type of -- in the type of terrorist activity as we've been experiencing in Iraq and Afghanistan." Sen. Bob Bennett (R-UT) argued on Monday night that if detainees were transferred to U.S. prisons, American prison guards would "have no idea what they're getting into." Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) responded on the Senate floor yesterday, saying that Bennett "ought to have a little more respect for the men and women who are corrections officers." "The reality is that we're holding some of the most dangerous terrorists in the world right now in our federal prisons," Durbin said.
U.S. PRISONS CAN HANDLE TERRORISTS: As Durbin pointed out, the U.S. prison system is currently holding hundreds of convicted terrorists "including the mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the shoe bomber, the Unibomber, and many others." Indeed, terrorists such as the Blind Sheikh and Zacarias Moussaoui were convicted and sentenced to life in prison at the Colorado Supermax. Additionally, the high-security wing of the naval brig in Charleston, SC, confined Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri for more than five years. The New Yorker's Jane Mayer has noted that, "[u]nlike the staff at Abu Ghraib, the brig staff had been trained for the job. Their mission, as they saw it, was to run a safe, professional, and humane prison, regardless of who was held there." Despite the conventional wisdom that "no member" of Congress has stepped forward to say that their states could take Guantanamo detainees, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) said on the Senate floor yesterday that California's prisons were "eminently capable" of housing detainees. Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) also suggested yesterday that his state could hold detainees in a maximum security prison. "If the governor and the local officials are open to it, that's something that should be considered," said Levin. Read the Center for American Progress' plan for effectively closing Guantanamo Bay here.