Friday, February 6 2009 - Accountability
Obama to Meet Victims, Relatives of 9/11 Attacks
Michael D. Shear, Peter Finn and Dan Eggen
President Obama will gather tomorrow with victims and families of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and U.S.S. Cole bombing for a face-to-face meeting as his administration struggles to decide how to handle detainees at Guatanamo Bay, Cuba, several of those invited said.
The previously undisclosed meeting at the White House tomorrow afternoon will give the new president a chance to explain his decision to close the controversial prison facility where the U.S. has placed many suspected terrorists since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Obama has been assailed by conservative critics who say the decision to close the facility within a year will lead to putting many of those terrorists back on the street. In a recent interview, former vice president Dick Cheney, an architect of the Bush administration's war on terror, criticized the decision as reckless.
In an interview with Politico.com, Cheney accused the Obama administration of following "campaign rhetoric" on Guantanamo and warned that the new president's policies could put the country at greater risk of a new attack.
"When we get people who are more concerned about reading the rights to an al-Qaeda terrorist than they are with protecting the United States against people who are absolutely committed to do anything they can to kill Americans, then I worry," Cheney said.
Obama has defended his decision, saying that closing the facility will make the country safer by putting an end to one of the most controversial symbols of the U.S.-led war against terrorism. He said that symbol has helped terrorists recruit new volunteers.
One 9/11 activist, who declined to be identified talking about the meeting, said "fireworks" are likely at the gathering because it will include both relatives who oppose and those who support Obama's plan to close Guantanamo Bay. "There's been some noise that some families don't like the idea and others do, so this is a chance to discuss that," the activist said.
Jim Riches, a retired New York firefighter whose son, Jimmy Riches, died in the 9-11 attacks, said in an interview Thursday that he wants to hear directly from President Obama what the government intends to do with the prisoners.
"I want to know, are they going to drop the charges? Are they going to try them in another court?" he said. "I want to let them know that these men are dangerous."
Riches praised Obama for agreeing to a meeting so soon after taking office.
"The issue tomorrow is what are they going to do with those detainees. We want justice for the ones that said they did it," he said. "Some people may say it's a political move. But I want my voice to be heard. It's a sign of an open door policy, and that's good."
Obama aides did not respond to questions about the meeting. The administration may want to impress on families that they are not dropping charges against alleged terrorists, including Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the self-proclaimed mastermind of the 9/11 attacks who is facing capital charges in Guantanamo, and that he and others will be brought to justice.
Obama had instructed military prosecutors to seek a 120-day continuance in the military commissions in Guantanamo Bay while the administration studied how to handle the approximately 245 detainees at the facility when the prison in Cuba is closed. In an executive order, Obama said the prison should be closed within a year.
But the request for a stay was rejected by the chief military judge in Guantanamo, who decided to proceed with the arraignment Monday of Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, who is accused of organizing the 2000 attack on the U.S.S. Cole.
The refusal by Judge James Pohl, an Army Colonel, has left the administration with little choice but to withdraw the charges "without prejudice" against Nashiri, a procedural move that allows the government to halt proceedings without reference to the judge.
The administration has yet to act in the case, and Friday's meeting may, in part, be to explain that the charges can be reinstated at a later date in some reformed military commissions system. The tactic was also used by the Bush administration when it wanted to stop various proceedings in Guantanamo. The Pentagon has dismissed without prejudice charges in six cases, and reinstated them later in three of those cases.
If Nashiri, a Saudi facing capital charges, pleads guilty Monday, he could box in the administration as the legal principle of double-jeopardy would apply and it would be very difficult to move his case to another court, according to defense attorneys.
Withdrawing the charges against Nashiri could also trigger a withdrawal against all 20 other detainees currently facing trial in Guantanamo. Defense lawyers said they would insist that all detainees be treated equally during the review process.
The president may also want to explain some possible alternative to military commissions, including moving proceedings to federal court or military courts martial.
The relatives of 9/11 victims have divided along somewhat partisan lines in the seven years since the attacks, with some strongly supporting Bush's policies and others growing increasingly dismayed by the direction of U.S. counterterrorism efforts. As a result, Obama's plan to close Guantanamo Bay prompted differing reactions among various groups.
September 11th Advocates, for example, issued a statement last month praising Obama's announcement and calling Guantanamo "an enormous stain on America's reputation."
"The temporary halting of proceedings at Gitmo gives us the 'audacity to hope' that President Obama will be able to restore America's good name, which has been repeatedly tarnished during the past eight years," said the statement from the group, which is led by four New Jersey widows of 9/11 victims. "We appreciate the tough decisions that President Obama has been forced to make and admire him for taking these difficult tasks on."
A group called 9/11 Parents and Families of Firefighters, by contrast, questioned Obama's decision to suspending the trials of several detainees while he maps out the closure of Guantanamo Bay. "We cannot understand why it has taken so long for the prosecution of the detainees in cases where substantial evidence exists of direct or indirect involvement in the terrorist attacks" of 9/11, the group said in a Jan. 25 statement.
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