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Gitmo Not Likely to Close Till 2011 at the Earliest

We’d already set aside the January 2010 deadline for closing the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay that President Obama set on his first day in office. But now the administration is acknowledging that it probably won’t close the prison down until 2011 — at the earliest.

While funding is the most immediate obstacle, it’s actually deep-rooted suspicion, fear and disappointment from both sides of the aisle that have derailed the president’s plans.

Charlie Savage today reports on the logistical obstacles to shifting Gitmo detainees to the Thomson Correctional Center: the 8 to 10 months it will take to install new perimeter fencing, security towers and cameras, and the problem of how the administration can come up with the $150 million needed to purchase the facility, in light of the legislative obstacles to appropriating money for it anytime in the next year.

But political obstacles underlie the logistics, and they’re coming not just from Republicans like Rep. John Boehner, who last week vowed not to support any appropriations for facilities housing Gitmo prisoners to the United States. Opposition is also coming from Democrats like Ike Skelton of Missouri, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Loretta Sanchez of California and Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia.

The Obama administration should not be surprised. After all, as my colleague Spencer Ackerman points out, if it were just bringing Guantanamo detainees to the United States for trial, it wouldn’t have this problem. But once the president announced that the Thomson facility might also be used to continue to hold terror suspects indefinitely without charge or trial, what’s the Democrats’ incentive for supporting it? Isn’t that just moving the liability of Guantanamo, which the administration and its supporters have long said acts as a recruiting tool for terrorists, to U.S. soil? It’s hard to see why any lawmakers from either party want to move that much-hated site to the continental United States, where their constituents already fear another terrorist attack.

As Sanchez said to Savage: “Particularly making something on U.S. soil an attraction for Al Qaeda and terrorists to go after — inciting them to attack something on U.S. soil — that’s a problem, and we need to think it through.”

Sure, Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) and some other Illinois lawmakers support the move in large part because it would create jobs for some of their constituents. But while a nice plus for them, that’s not exactly the best argument for a major change in national security policy.

Once again, the Obama administration has managed to alienate both parties rather than unite them behind a common cause. Let’s hope the new year brings a new strategy.

In the meantime, Boehner and his colleagues are likely to win the day. As he put it at a press conference last Thursday: “There are at least two pieces of legislation that are going to have to go through this Congress before those prisoners can come here. And I wouldn’t want to bet on when those two pieces of legislation will pass, if ever.”

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