By Jordy Yager - 03/02/11 01:35 AM EST
Attorney General Eric Holder left open the possibility Tuesday that the Guantánamo Bay terrorist prison camp might live on beyond President Obama’s first term.
Asked in a congressional hearing whether the prison would be closed by November 2012, Holder said: “I don’t know.
Obama promised during his successful election campaign to close the detention center in Cuba, calling it a recruiting tool for terrorist groups like al Qaeda. He signed an executive order on his second day in the Oval Office that set a one-year timeline for shutting it down.
But both Republicans and Democrats opposed the closure, saying they did not want any terrorist suspects housed in prisons in their home states.
Congress prohibited any federal funds being used to pay for the transfer of detainees from Guantánamo to prisons the United States, and the White House has pushed the issue to the backburner.
With Republicans now in control of the House, and Democrats showing little interest in reopening the debate, Holder conceded under questioning that the prospects for closing Guantánamo have dimmed.
The attorney general said the Justice Department has established a task force to look at each of the 172 detainees being held at the Guantánamo prison to address how they should be dealt with.
Holder’s comments come just weeks after CIA Director Leon Panetta told a Senate panel that Osama bin Laden would probably be shipped to and held at the Guantánamo Bay facility if he were captured.
Panetta’s remarks were widely viewed as a tacit admission that Guantánamo Bay won’t be closing. A CIA spokesman issued a statement immediately after Panetta’s testimony emphasizing the agency’s support for shutting down the facility.
In testimony before the Appropriations Committee’s Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies, Holder said the White House has not requested any funding in the 2012 budget for closing Guantánamo Bay.
Subcommittee Chairman Frank Wolf (R-Va.) sparred with Holder over why the administration wants to close the prison. Holder argued the position long held by Obama: that the alleged torture and abuse committed against prisoners under President George W. Bush has been used as a way for al Qaeda to recruit potential terrorists to wage war against the United States.
“I start my day at 8:30 every morning with a briefing about the threat stream for the past 24 hours,” said Holder. “It’s a compilation of all that the intelligence community has found … and you see — not every day, but I think on a fairly consistent basis — indications that the existence of Guantánamo is something that al Qaeda uses in its recruiting efforts. It is simply a fact.”
Wolf objected, saying that the first bombing of the World Trade Center and the bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Tanzania, both carried out by al Qaeda-affiliated terrorists, occurred before Guantánamo began imprisoning combatants in the war on terrorism.
Wolf stressed that the White House should listen to the sentiments of lawmakers and stop carrying on with its own agenda.
“Even in the previous Congress there was no will, which was a Democratic Congress, to really close Guantánamo,” said Wolf.
Wolf was one of the dozens of lawmakers last Congress who put forward bills to prohibit any of the detainees in Guantánamo coming to their own states.
Recent concerns have arisen among lawmakers that the Justice Department may be trying to reopen the Thomson maximum-security prison in Illinois in an attempt to ready it for Guantánamo inmates.
But Holder assured the House panel that the plan to reopen the Thompson prison was solely geared toward easing the rampant overcrowding at some of the country’s other prisons, without spending more money to build a new facility.
“There are no present intentions,” Holder said. “We have these congressional restrictions with regard to the movement of people from Guantánamo to any facilities within the United States.”