Obama Seeking U-Turn on Detainees

Posted June 5, 2009 at 6:20pm

On May 20, 50 members of the Senate Democratic Conference went on record as NIMBYs when it comes to bringing prisoners from the Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, military prison to the United States.

But once President Barack Obama presents his plan mid-summer on how to close the facility housing hundreds of suspected terrorists, those Democrats will probably be asked to reverse their not-in-my-backyard stance on an issue that many in the party see as politically perilous.

And neither Democrats on Capitol Hill nor in the White House are quite sure how to make the turnabout politically attractive to their Members in order to help their president fulfill his campaign promise to close the prison for good.

“Some [Members] are dug in and stated public positions and cast votes,— Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said last week. “So it makes it more difficult.—

Last week, the White House tried to nudge both the House and Senate to backtrack on provisions in the nearly $100 billion supplemental war spending bill that bar the administration from releasing, transferring or incarcerating Guantánamo detainees in the United States. At the very least, the administration argued, they should be allowed to transfer detainees to the U.S. for prosecution.

“It didn’t work. A lot of people still have concerns,— said one senior Senate Democratic aide.

But, as if to confirm Democrats’ fears about how they might be attacked for backpedaling, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) used the dreaded double-f word to describe what Democrats were contemplating.

“As Senate Democrats have often said, the Senate is not a rubber stamp. And we should not flip-flop on our vote of just a few weeks ago,— he said.

In trying to sway Democrats to reverse themselves, the White House has privately pledged to Democrats that the president will take the political heat for his ultimate detainees plan. And Democrats in both chambers are working on language that would give Obama more flexibility on detainees — such as accused African embassy bomber Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani — who the Justice Department says are ready to be tried this summer.

But the fight over how exactly to word the language has been one of the issues delaying completion of the conference report on the supplemental. Aides said the issue would not be resolved until later this week.

“If we’re going to try and do this on the supplemental, the White House is going to have to step up to the plate and ratchet up the rhetoric,— said the senior Senate Democratic aide.

But the problem, some Democrats say, is not the issue of allowing detainees to be brought to the United States for trial. The real test will come when Obama presents his plan, which will likely include holding suspected terrorists in maximum security prisons in the continental United States. The plan may even include a proposal to allow some of the detainees to go free if the government determines they cannot be charged with terrorism crimes.

Democratic leaders are likely to seize on Obama’s plan — once it’s announced, likely sometime in late July or August — as the answer to their woes, explaining the May vote as a way to force Obama to present his strategy for the detainees.

And in the Senate, it might help that six influential Democrats voted against the prohibitions on detainee transfers: The list includes Durbin, who serves as the No. 2 Democrat in the chamber; Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (Mich.); Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (Vt.); Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Chairman Tom Harkin (Iowa); and two respected voices on military and intelligence matters, Sens. Jack Reed (R.I.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.).

Additionally, Levin and Durbin have each tried to shoot down the rest of the caucus’ NIMBY fears by saying their states would be delighted to house the detainees in supermax facilities.

But even if House and Senate Democratic leaders embrace Obama’s plan, it may still be a hard sell to the rank and file, precisely because it may include both permanent detention in the United States and release into the United States populace.

Democrats said that part of the plan is necessary because other countries that might be willing to share some of the burden of relocating detainees have already indicated that they will not take prisoners if the United States refuses.

“Those negotiations [with other countries] will not start at all until we say we’re taking some people here,— the second senior Senate Democratic aide said. This aide said that Obama’s plan must address the fate of a group of Chinese Muslims currently being held at Guantánamo — some in the administration have argued these prisoners should be released into the United States to prevent them from facing persecution back in China.

But it’s exactly the question of releasing those Chinese Muslims — known as Uighurs — that has Republicans crying foul and cautioning against releasing terrorists into the populace at large.

Durbin said, “I think it’s naive of us to think that the rest of the world is going to take over the Guantánamo detainees and we have no responsibility.—

Part of the political problem in the Senate particularly is that the chamber did not initially follow the House’s lead when deciding whether to give Obama the $80 million he asked for to begin shuttering Guantánamo. Unlike in the House, the Senate Appropriations Committee’s version included the funding, but Senate Democrats quickly realized they would not have the votes on the floor to keep it in the bill.

Appropriations Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) instead offered an amendment on the Senate floor to strip the funding and prohibit the Obama administration from moving the detainees anywhere anytime soon. The House provision gave the administration room to present a plan for detainee transfers before using the money.

“The White House is trying to move us much more toward what the House proposed, but the problem is we can’t get 60 votes for that,— said the first Democratic aide. Sixty votes are needed to overcome a filibuster.

Plus, prior to the May 20 vote, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) appeared to unequivocally rule out ever allowing detainees into the United States, whether through continued incarceration or through release.

At a news conference May 19, Reid was repeatedly asked to clarify his stance on Guantánamo prisoners.

“Part of what we don’t want is them be put in prisons in the United States. We don’t want them around the United States,— he told reporters.

But his answer was also muddied by his insistence that Congress wanted to see Obama’s plan before doing anything regarding detainees. “Why don’t we wait for a plan from the president?— he asked. “All we’re doing now is nitpicking on language that I have given you.—

Durbin said Thursday that Democratic leaders realized they would have to reverse themselves on what to do with Guantánamo following Obama’s May 21 speech on detainee policy, which came just one day after the Senate vote.

“Our timing was not good,— Durbin said. “Most people realized that if the president was going to achieve his goals of bringing anyone to trial that they would clearly have to be brought to the United States and incarcerated during the trial. That’s so obvious.—