WASHINGTON - Republicans in at least six states are seeking to block the White House from transferring Guantánamo Bay detainees to their districts, in what critics call an effort to stymie Barack Obama's efforts to close the prison.
Congressional Republicans have introduced bills that would bar the government from moving any of the 250 inmates to some of the most prominent military and civilian detention centres in the US, including a "supermax" high-security federal prison in Florence, Colorado, which holds at least 16 convicted international terrorists, and a South Carolina naval brig that holds the only enemy combatant jailed in America.
Obama, who signed an executive order during his first week as president to shut the six-year-old facility, has yet to release plans for the suspected terrorists who remain there. Critics say the pre-emptive legislation and media campaigns from Republicans - and at least one Democrat - are intended to defend George Bush's legacy against those who claim the prison has damaged America's standing in the world and has become a recruiting symbol for terrorists.
Last week, 20 Texas Republicans sent a letter to Obama urging him not to send Guantánamo detainees to their state. Sam Brownback, the Kansas senator, aims to keep detainees out of a military prison there, and an Arizona Republican has filed legislation that would prevent detainees from being shipped to federal civilian or military prisons.
Guantánamo critics say the Republican opposition is based on flawed assumptions about the capacity of the US criminal justice system to securely handle the suspected terrorists, and is a proxy for broad opposition to the Guantánamo closure. They note that the US has already convicted more than 140 international terrorists. The so-called supermax prison in Colorado holds terrorists convicted in the 1993 World Trade Centre bombing and the 1995 "bojinka" plot to bring down 11 American airliners, the accused "dirty bomb" plotter Jose Padilla and the September 11 conspirator Zacarias Massoui, among others.
The executive order that Obama signed on 22 January demanded that Guantánamo be closed within a year and created a panel to review the cases of detainees and determine who should be prosecuted. The Obama administration hopes other countries will accept some of the detainees. The foreign minister, David Miliband, is working to secure the transfer to Britain of Binyam Mohamed, a UK resident detained at Guantánamo.
Of the estimated 800 men who have been imprisoned in Guantánamo, the Bush administration released or transferred to other countries more than 500. Two detainees have been tried: David Hicks, who was convicted on a plea bargain that allowed him to return to his native Australia, and Salim Ahmed Hamdan, who was convicted of material support for terrorism and sentenced to five and a half years in prison. He was released from a Yemeni prison last month.
Guantánamo analysts estimate that between 60 and 80 detainees could wind up in the US criminal justice system. The defence secretary, William Gates, said: "We have identified a number of possible prisons here in the United States. I've heard from members of Congress where all of those prisons are located. Their enthusiasm is limited."
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In the Texas Republicans' letter to Obama, they express opposition to the transfer of Guantánamo detainees to the US on the grounds that "supreme court precedents indicate that courts can bestow certain constitutional rights on individuals simply by virtue of their being on US soil". They also cite security fears: "Any such detention facility in the continental United States would instantly become a target for terrorist[s], who would likely seek to free the terrorist detainees, destroy the facility, or both". The letter is signed by Senator John Cornyn and 19 congressmen.
The Arizona Republican congressman Trent Franks introduced legislation last week that would prohibit federal funds from being used to transfer Guantánamo detainees to Arizona or to build or refit Arizona facilities to accommodate them. Dan Boren, the lone Democrat in Oklahoma's congressional delegation, co-sponsored a bill to keep Guantánamo prisoners out of that state.
The legislation is unlikely to pass, and Guantánamo and terrorism researchers say Republican security concerns are unfounded.
"If they think that US prisons can't hold terrorists without a good chance of those terrorists of running away and killing Americans, then I wonder why they haven't spent every waking hour of their lives in the Congress trying to fix that problem, considering that US prisons currently house some of the world's most dangerous convicted terrorists," said Tom Malinowski, Washington director of Human Rights Watch.
Sarah Mendelson, director of the human rights and security initiative at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington national security thinktank, described the Republican objections as "a red herring". She said that if Guantánamo detainees were tried in federal courts like Padilla and the 1993 World Trade Centre bombers, they would be held in facilities close to those courts.
"Presumably, pre-trial detention facilities are secure enough to handle extremely dangerous people," she said. "I do find it extremely unhelpful that Republican members of Congress are so unwilling to help the Obama administration turn the page on what has been an really damaging episode of America's role in the world," she said.
Mark Denbeaux, an attorney for two Tunisians held at Guantánamo, said the Republican complaints were an effort to justify the lengthy detention without trial of the Guantánamo prisoners.
"If you're going to make them look evil and dangerous, you're going to have to say they're so bad we can't even hold them in federal prison," said Denbeaux, a law professor at Seton Hall University in New Jersey. "I don't see any reason why the guy who came to the US to make a dirty bomb is OK in the supermax in Florence [Colorado] but some guy who was a driver for Bin Laden is somehow a huge threat."