WASHINGTON - A federal judge has ruled that the United States can continue to hold
some prisoners in military detention indefinitely without any charges.
U.S. District Judge John Bates' opinion issued Tuesday night limited
the Obama administration's definition of who can be held. But he said
Congress in the days after Sept. 11, 2001 gave the president the
authority to hold anyone involved in planning, aiding or carrying out
the terrorist attacks.
Bates' opinion comes amid increasing debate over whether President Barack Obama is going to release anyone from Guantanamo Bay.
Obama has promised to close the prison, but Senate Democrats say they
will block the move until he comes up with a plan for the detainees.
Meanwhile, a top Pentagon official says members of Congress must
rethink their opposition to accepting these detainees into the United
Michele Flournoy, President Barack Obama's new Pentagon policy chief,
said members of Congress need to remember that closing the stigmatized
prison in Cuba will mean hard choices for everyone. She spoke after
Senate Democrats said they won't pay for closure until the
administration delivers a satisfactory plan for what to do with the
Flournoy says it's unrealistic to think that no detainees will come to
the U.S., and that the U.S. can't ask allies to take detainees while
refusing to take on the same burden.
Without singling anyone out, Flournoy said lawmakers need to think more "strategically."
As the Senate took up Mr. Obama's request for money for military and
diplomatic operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, Democrats reversed
course Tuesday and said they would deny the request for $80 million for
the Justice and Defense departments to relocate the 240 detainees at
the U.S. base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. They would also indefinitely bar
the government from transferring any of the facility's prisoners into
the United States, though the ban could be relaxed in subsequent
A vote is expected Wednesday on an amendment by Sens. Daniel Inouye, a
Hawaii Democrat, and James Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican, that would
put the restrictions in the war-funding measure.
While allies such as No. 2 Senate Democrat Dick Durbin of Illinois cast
the development as a delay of only a few months, other Democrats have
made it plain they do not want any of Guantanamo's detainees sent to
the United States to stand trial or serve prison sentences.
"We don't want them around," said Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat.
The Senate move matches steps taken by the House and threatens to
paralyze the Obama administration's entire plan to close the Guantanamo
Bay detention facility by January. In recent weeks, Attorney General
Eric Holder had sought to reassure skeptical lawmakers, but Congress
appears unconvinced and may force the detention facility to remain in
It's also evidence that a weeks-long Republican effort against Mr.
Obama's order to close the Guantanamo facility is paying off.
"Guantanamo is the perfect place for these terrorists," said Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican.
Democrats and other Republicans - including last year's Republican
presidential candidate, Sen. John McCain of Arizona - say it is time to
close the facility, where detainees can be held for years without being
But McCain said in a floor speech Tuesday that Mr. Obama has bungled the Guantanamo issue.
"The lack of a comprehensive, well-thought-out plan led to a
predictable political backlash on Guantanamo," McCain said. "Instead of
unifying Americans behind a plan that keeps us safe and honors our
values, the administration's course of action has unified the
opposition to moving forward and move forward we must."
Even Durbin acknowledged that Mr. Obama had put Democrats in an awkward
spot by sending up a request for funding to close the prison without an
"The feeling was at this point we were defending the unknown. We were
being asked to defend a plan that hasn't been announced," Durbin said.
"And the administration said, 'Understood. Give us time to put together
that plan and we'll come to you in the next appropriations bill."'
Under the separation of powers outlined in the U.S. Constitution,
Congress has control over spending of almost all government money.
Thus, it can stop virtually any program by refusing to provide money to
carry it out.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters that lawmakers
were correct to insist on details on closing the detention facility. He
said the president on Thursday would outline "a hefty part" of his
agenda for the often-criticized facility.
A key piece of the Justice Department's plan has been to send many
detainees abroad, but if Congress were to bar detainees from being
transported to the United States - even for trial - it would become
much more difficult to persuade other countries to accept them.
At the Pentagon, spokesman Geoff Morrell said at least some funding
needs to be passed now or else it would be "exceedingly difficult" to
meet Obama's target date.
Durbin said Mr. Obama's plan to close Guantanamo is not dead - only
that the funding will have to wait until the administration devises an
acceptable plan to handle the closure and transfer the detainees.
The Senate's move was cast as a tactical retreat until the
administration develops a plan to close the facility. But the political
anxiety felt by many Democrats runs deeper. Many simply don't want them
sent to U.S. soil - even if they're held in high-security prisons.
"I can't make it any more clear," Reid said. "We will never allow terrorists to be released in the United States."
Reporters repeatedly pressed Reid on whether his opposition to
"releasing" inmates meant he is also against transferring them to the
U.S. to stand trial. He appeared to indicate that was the case, though
spokesman Jim Manley said later that Reid may have misspoken.
House Democrats dropped funding to close Guantanamo when producing
their version of the war funding bill, which easily passed last week.
The Guantanamo controversy has roiled Washington, with most Republicans
adamantly opposed to closing the prison, which mostly holds enemy
combatants captured in Afghanistan. Republicans say abuses at the
facility are a thing of the past.
The Senate's massive war spending measure otherwise sticks closely to
Obama's request. The House version effectively exceeds Mr. Obama's
request by almost $12 billion, adding $2.2 billion for foreign aid and
eight C-17 cargo planes despite Defense Secretary Robert Gates' desire
to cease purchases of the aircraft as part of his effort to overhaul