WASHINGTON — Members of Congress from both parties clamored Sunday for President Barack Obama to develop a plan for dealing with the suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay if he intends to fulfill his promise to close its prison by early 2010. The top U.S. military officer also awaited a decision from the commander in chief.
"We're saying, 'Mr. President, give us the plan,' " Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said on CNN's State of the Union.
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, pressed Obama for details on how he intends to fulfill his promise to close the detention facility on the U.S. Navy base in Cuba, where 240 suspected terrorists are housed.
"We're working hard now to figure out what the options are and what the best one would be. And that really is a decision the president is going to have to make, certainly in meeting this deadline of what we do," Mullen said on ABC's This Week.
Obama's promise to close the detention facility by early 2010 ran smack into political reality in the last week. Obama's fellow Democrats denied him funding to move the suspected terrorists, while Republicans latched onto a message that helped the minority GOP drive sustained headlines for the first time in months.
"Well, I don't think you can convince the American people that you can bring the people from Gitmo to their states and they will be safe," Republican Sen. Richard Shelby said on State of the Union.
The not-in-my-backyard chorus drove Obama to deliver a speech defending his decision to close the facility, proposed during the campaign and delivered during his second full day in power. Yet lawmakers and even Obama's own advisers remained unsure after the speech of how, exactly, the president would make good on his vow to close the symbol of the United States' detention of suspected terrorists in a legal limbo.
When Obama didn't specify the mechanics for closing the prison, his allies were left scratching their heads and his critics were questioning the need to shut it down, given that some of the prisoners were likely to go to scaled-down versions of Guantanamo anyway.
"I don't know why it is better to have somebody in a so-called 'supermax' facility in, say, Colorado than it is to keep them in Guantanamo, a state-of-the-art facility that we built not too long ago for the explicit purpose of holding these people," Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., said on Fox News Sunday. "There's nothing wrong with the prison in Gitmo, and there are a lot of problems — as FBI Director (Robert) Mueller pointed out in testimony just this week — with bringing those people to the United States."
Mueller told Congress it would be risky to relocate Guantanamo prisoners to U.S. facilities, giving House and Senate Democrats an opening to oppose Obama's request for $81 million to close Guantanamo without a detailed accounting of where the detainees will go.
Obama's options in dealing with the prisoners have led him in a circle back to the Bush-era policies he decried. Although the United States has in its domestic prisons many individuals convicted of terrorism, an influx of suspected terrorists onto the U.S. mainland is a political challenge.
"We have terrorists in jail right now, have had for some time," Mullen said. "They're in supermax prisons. And they don't pose a threat. So that's certainly an option. But again, it's not one for me to decide."