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Editorial: Shutting down Guantanamo is long overdue task for Obama and Congress

Published: Thursday, May. 2, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 10A
Last Modified: Thursday, May. 2, 2013 - 8:38 am

Barack Obama was right to call for closing the prison at Guantánamo Bay when he first became president. Four years on, his cause is even stronger.

The camp for terrorism suspects is a no man's land that violates core legal principles. It is a sinkhole for taxpayers' money. It is a recruiting tool for extremist groups. Every day it stays open, it deepens the stain on America's standing in the world.

Obama vowed again Tuesday to keep his 2008 campaign promise and pledged to re-engage with Congress. He tried just after taking office, issuing an executive order to close the camp within a year. In the face of bipartisan opposition, he backed down.

Congress continues to put up roadblocks. House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard "Buck" McKeon, a Republican from Santa Clarita, claims that Obama has not put forward an alternative plan.

That's stretching the truth, at best. It certainly won't be easy, but there is a path forward.

As human rights groups point out, there are administrative actions the president can take. More than half of the remaining 166 detainees at Guantánamo were cleared more than three years ago for conditional release or transfer to other countries; the CIA, FBI and Justice, State and Defense departments all signed off.

The administration needs to swiftly certify the transfers and aggressively seek nations to accept the detainees. Appointing a senior diplomat to fill the vacant State Department post heading that operation would be a fine start, as the White House suggested Wednesday it will do.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a San Francisco Democrat, is calling on the White House to reconsider repatriation to Yemen, home to 56 detainees approved for transfers. Obama stopped them after the failed bombing of a Detroit-bound plane in 2009, blamed on an al-Qaida branch in Yemen. Feinstein notes that Yemen's president, elected in 2012, is a strong foe of al-Qaida. As she says, it is definitely worth examining whether Yemen, with U.S. assistance, could securely hold detainees.

Many of the other detainees can be put on trial in civilian courts or, if absolutely necessary, in the military justice system. As Obama points out, terrorist suspects have been successfully prosecuted, including the men who attempted to bomb Times Square in 2010 and the Detroit-bound airliner.

Congress, however, has blocked funding for trials for Guantánamo detainees. It also refuses to upgrade a prison on U.S. soil to house those deemed too dangerous to release, but too difficult to prosecute.

As skeptics note, this president isn't exactly known for successfully cajoling Congress. Also, Obama has other weighty issues on his agenda, immigration reform among them.

But Guantánamo urgently requires his attention and effort.

Some detainees have been held for more than a decade, with little hope of leaving. Is it any wonder that about 100 have been on a hunger strike since February, including about two dozen now being force fed?

In the national emergency after 9/11, it may have seemed like a solution to the Bush administration to put some suspected terrorists at the U.S. Navy base in Cuba. Eleven years later, there is no reasonable justification for this perpetual prison. "Guantánamo is not necessary to keep America safe," Obama declared Tuesday.

This time, the right words must be followed by real action.

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