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Guantánamo Debate Has Gone Silent on Capitol Hill

Obama's Pledge Does Little to Sway Lawmakers

Remember the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba?

It was just a year ago that the question of how to close the detention center sparked a furor in Congress, with Democratic leaders demanding direction from President Barack Obama on the placement of the prison’s inhabitants: suspected terrorists awaiting trial.

But these days, the issue has been all but forgotten on Capitol Hill, where leading Democrats say other issues have taken precedence and Republicans accuse the president of dropping the ball. In the meantime, the administration has yet to make a strong enough case to lawmakers about sending the detainees to an Illinois state prison as a means to closing the facility — an Obama campaign pledge.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) acknowledged Tuesday that the urgency of the issue has subsided in the face of other pressing matters, namely the economy and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Closing Guantánamo has not been a point of “real, current discussion” in Congress, Hoyer said. “That’s not an issue being discussed very broadly. I think that you’re not going to see it discussed very broadly in the near term.”

A House Democrat who previously helped lead the charge for closing the facility had this to say when asked why he is no longer demanding action on the issue: “I forgot.”

The lawmaker said he was surprised by his and other lawmakers’ lack of attention to the issue given how much weight liberals threw behind trying to close the prison facility last year. “We were all worked up and signing letters and all kinds of stuff,” he said.

Obama originally set his sights on closing Guantánamo within his first year in office. But that year came and went and he still faces Congressional resistance on two fronts: where to house detainees awaiting trial and whether to try them in civilian versus military courts. As these questions remain unanswered, lawmakers in both parties continue to block funding for transferring detainees to locations in the United States, which has kept the fate of the prison in limbo.

Despite hitting a snag with Congress, a White House official said the president “remains committed” to closing Guantánamo because it has been deemed a national security imperative. The official pointed to a May report provided to Congress by the Guantánamo Review Task Force and said that for the first time, lawmakers have an outline for determining what do with each detainee. Specifically, the report calls for transferring 126 detainees to their home countries or to a third country, prosecuting 36 in federal court or a military commission and holding 48 indefinitely under the laws of war.

“We are also working with Congress to acquire and retrofit a Supermax facility in the U.S. for those detainees who cannot be transferred,” the official said. The Justice Department has been eyeing one facility in particular in Illinois, Thomson state prison.

But a Democrat familiar with negotiations on the matter said all parties recognize “what a nightmare this is: The administration doesn’t have a good plan yet.”

The Democrat said the Thomson facility is “maybe OK in theory,” but the problem is that administration officials “jumped ahead of the gun. They put the word out there before they had a solid plan in place or secured the support they needed from Congress. That opened the door for the GOP to come in with attacks that we’re importing terrorists into people’s backyards, which is the last thing Democrats need in an already tough election year.”

House Armed Services Chairman Ike Skelton, whose committee voted to prohibit the use of Defense Department funds to buy the Illinois prison, said he is focused on other matters.

“A war is going on. That’s my concern,” the Missouri Democrat said.

Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairman Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.), who supports keeping the prison open, said the issue remains “off the radar screen” because the reality is that Congress ultimately lacks the will to close the facility.

There is “simply not support from a majority of Members in either house to close Guantánamo and to move the detainees to any place in the U.S., including Thomson,” he said. “Guantánamo today meets all the standards and well beyond of a facility to hold detainees.”

Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and ranking member John McCain (R-Ariz.) both pointed fingers at Obama for the status of Guantánamo, but for different reasons.

“You can’t have every issue on the front burner,” Levin said. “The administration has not really made any important … effort here in Congress on that issue. They have their priorities, too.”

McCain ripped the administration for “just really mishandling” the policy and said Obama’s first mistake was to say he could close the prison in a year without having a policy in place.

“He should have said, ‘We’re going to sit down together with Republicans and develop a policy.’ And they didn’t. They just flailed around,” McCain said.

Some Democrats speculated that the issue is not at a complete standstill, however.

Senate Intelligence Chairman Dianne Feinstein said her sense is that the issue is “moving ahead slowly but surely.”

The California Democrat noted that the Guantánamo population “is winding down” as detainees are slowly being transferred to other countries.

“Just because there isn’t an argument every day, that doesn’t meant it won’t happen,” Feinstein said.

Another House Democrat speculated that once the administration sorts out whether to try self-proclaimed 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in a civilian court in New York, the issue of closing Guantánamo will be worked out shortly afterward.

“I suspect that they’ll make a decision on the KSM trial after the elections,” the lawmaker said.

Jessica Brady contributed to this report.

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