Group pushing for Guantanamo closure, prisoner transfers

Several retired generals will join forces with war critics this week to support President Barack Obama’s commitment to transfer Guantanamo Bay terror suspects to the U.S. for trial.

The generals, who will remain anonymous until the campaign is formally announced Tuesday, are joining forces with VoteVets’ Jon Soltz and former Rep. Tom Andrews (D-Maine) to urge Congress to shutter the Guantanamo prison. Andrews is the director of National Campaign to Close Guantanamo.

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The group plans to launch a national TV ad campaign aimed at pressuring members of Congress to support Obama’s pledge to shutter the tarnished detention facility.

The campaign comes in the wake of the defeat of a GOP-led effort in the House to block the transfer of any Guantanamo Bay detainee to U.S. soil – even for prosecution. The House voted 224-193 to allow detainees to be moved to the U.S. for trial. It came on an amendment to the $42.8 billion Homeland Security spending bill. The overall bill passed 307-114 and now moves to the Senate, where swift passage is expected.

“It was good to see that there is hope in the House on the issue,” Andrews told The Hill Friday. “…This was a good step forward but we have many, many steps to go before we can overcome this Republican opposition.”

Obama is trying to meet a self-imposed deadline for closing Gitmo by Jan. 22, 2010, but senior administration officials have readily conceded that the detention facility will remain open after that deadline passes because of the thorny and unexpected legal circumstances surrounding its closure.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) is planning another attempt to block the transfer of a subset of the detainees: anyone accused of plotting the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

An amendment he plans to offer to the appropriations bill funding the Justice Department would prohibit the use of funds for trying in U.S. civilian courts anyone involved in the attack on New York’s twin towers. It would affect about a half-dozen suspects who are accused of being involved in planning the attacks.

Graham and others want the suspects tried instead in a military commission at Gitmo, arguing that civilian courts are ill-equipped for such high-stakes trials involving potential security secrets.

Graham has said that defeating his amendment would force a “fundamental shift in national security policy” by criminalizing war suspects and possibly jeopardizing their prosecution.

“It would be a major strategic mistake to take the mastermind of 9/11 and put him in a federal court,” Graham has said, referring to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. “It would be a zoo.”

Democrats are expected to back the administration and defeat the amendment. Obama’s supporters have said U.S. officials need flexibility in prosecution decisions.

“Why should we preclude any forum where they can be successfully tried and held accountable?" Majority Whip Dick Durbin told The Hill earlier this week. “We rely on civilian courts every day for the security of Americans in our neighborhoods and homes, and I am not going to draw a conclusion that the Department of Justice should not be part of this conversation. I want them tried in a court where they are most likely to be prosecuted.”

Andrews said his campaign is aimed at encouraging more supporters in Congress to speak out and support the president on the politically sensitive issue.

“It’s extremely important for the Senate and the House to stand up and join this debate and to lay down the fundamental case for turning the page and respecting the Constitution of the United States and the basic values of this country and allow our judicial process to do what it has done very, very well,” he said. “The assault on this reform is going to continue in many forms. The Democrats and those who support this reform and support the Constitution need to stand up and defend it.”

Republicans quickly seized on the latest House vote on Gitmo to hammer Democrats who voted against it. The National Republican Congressional Committee sent out releases slamming candidates in 50 districts for giving the Obama administration permission to transfer Gitmo detainees to U.S. soil.

“The Democrats’ current plans roll out the welcome mat for Gitmo detainees with provisions temporarily allowing the administration to try the prisoners in U.S. courts,” the release stated.

Republicans cited a June Gallup poll showing that Americans oppose plans to move Gitmo detainees to the U.S. by a 4 to 1 margin.