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The High Price of Bravado

The High Price of Bravado

By Ruben Navarrette - January 10, 2010

SAN DIEGO -- As we have seen, bravado is not exclusive to any political party. Republicans and Democrats can both get carried away and say things they'll later have trouble backing up.

Sometimes we see it in a conservative president who, wanting to appear strong and capable, stubbornly dares insurgents to "bring it on" and describes an enemy as "wanted dead or alive." And sometimes, we see it in a liberal president who, trying to appear just and humane, stubbornly declares: "Make no mistake. We will close Guantanamo prison."

That's what President Obama said during his recent remarks about national security in the aftermath of the attempt to blow up a U.S. airliner on Christmas Day.

The problem isn't that Obama promised to close the military prison at Guantanamo Bay. He has said this on numerous occasions. Obama maintains that the facility has "damaged our national security interests and become a tremendous recruiting tool for al-Qaeda." He wants to put a stop to that by shutting it down.

The problem is that, given rapidly changing conditions, the president's words don't appear to be grounded in reality. This is because, increasingly, closing Guantanamo looks like a promise that Obama is not going to be able to keep -- at least not anytime soon. Two days after his inauguration, the president promised to close the facility in one year. Obama repeated his pledge just a few weeks before his own one-year deadline is set to expire on Jan. 22.

The issue of what to do with the terror suspects currently housed at the Cuban facility has turned out to be more complicated than Obama realized. In fact, the president has established a task force to decide what to do with the prisoners. Some are sure to be tried in military tribunals, others in civilian court. But as administration officials including Attorney General Eric Holder have acknowledged, some may never come to trial because the evidence might have been compromised through rough interrogation methods and other questionable tactics.

It seems that the administration plans to transfer at least some of the Guantanamo detainees to the Thomson Correctional Center in Illinois. In fact, Illinois lawmakers recently voted to close the facility in order to sell it to the federal government for this purpose. But the transfer of terror suspects could take a while since the first group to arrive at Thomson will be federal prisoners convicted of more ordinary crimes. After they're settled in, which could take up to a year, a separate wing of the prison, supervised by the Department of Defense, will be set up to hold Gitmo detainees.

Another complication in Obama's plan to close Guantanamo is the situation in Yemen. It was in that lawless country that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the 23-year-old Nigerian suspected suicide bomber, allegedly got his marching orders from an al-Qaeda branch. And that's where, according to U.S. authorities, two of the ringleaders of that outpost appear to be former detainees at -- you guessed it -- Guantanamo.

So it was noteworthy that Obama would, in his remarks, declare that his administration would -- perhaps in response to pressure from some members of Congress -- stop transferring terror detainees to Yemen "given the unsettled situation" in that country. The administration has already sent home seven Yemeni detainees, including six in December. According to media accounts, of the 198 prisoners still at Guantanamo, about 92 are from Yemen. Of those, about 40 had been cleared for release.

And, as if all that wasn't enough to interfere with Obama's plans to close the prison, a recent leaked Pentagon report claims that as many as one in five terror suspects released from Guantanamo has returned to the battlefield or forged links with militant groups. Early last year, the Pentagon reported that the rate of released detainees who went back to their old ways was 11 percent. In April, it was 14 percent. The latest figure was 20 percent, according to The Associated Press, which quoted a U.S. official speaking on condition of anonymity.

Add it all up and it is no wonder that, the day after Obama reiterated his promise to close the detention facility, Defense Department press secretary Geoff Morrell told reporters those plans were on hold.

"We are right now left without either the money or the authority to move detainees from Guantanamo Bay," Morrell said.

So much for bravado. Whether or not you want to accept it, Mr. President, reality is setting in.

 

ruben@rubennavarrette.com

Copyright 2010, Washington Post Writers Group

Ruben Navarrette

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