President Obama’s powers of persuasion seem to have won over some terrorism victims’ family members who had been upset over his decision to close the Guantanamo Bay prison camp and suspend military trials for detainees there.
Obama spent about an hour Friday afternoon meeting with the families of victims of the September 11 attacks and the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole in 2000. After the session, which took place in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building adjacent to the White House, some who were skeptical of Obama’s recent actions said they were willing to give him the four months he has asked for to review President Bush’s policies and devise a new approach.
“Wait 120 days. Figure it out. Do it better,” said Mindy Kleinberg, whose husband, Alan, was killed on 9/11. “Let’s see if they do that. We’re all understanding that this is an impossible situation.”
Not every participant seemed so accepting of Obama’s call for more time. “Electric chair,” one participant said after the meeting. “Light them up,” another added.
The meeting came as the White House recalibrated its Guantanamo-related message, asserting that the president’s primary objection to the military tribunals was that they were taking too long.
“The main concern that the president has is the military commissions’ failure to bring those in detention to swift justice,” White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said at the daily news briefing.
The idea that “swift justice” is Obama’s “main concern” with the tribunals appears to be a change in focus, if not position, for the new president.
In 2006, as Congress debated the Military Commissions Act, Obama denounced the measure as a “betrayal of American values.” In February 2008, during the presidential campaign, he issued a statement calling the commission system “flawed.” A group of lawyers representing Guantanamo detainees endorsed Obama because he supported the prisoners’ right to bring habeas corpus cases in federal courts.
After Friday’s briefing, Gibbs emailed reporters to indicate that Obama felt an additional delay now could avert years of litigation over the process. “It’s been long enough for many of these families,” Gibbs wrote. “The President believes that the process he’s put in place will create a firmer and more sound legal framework to move forward.”
“As this administration is discovering, governing is different than campaigning. You can’t make an accusation about a process, then claim that you want to stop it to review it,” the commander of the Cole at the time it was bombed, Kirk Lippold, said as he left the meeting with Obama. “They got ahead of themselves in their rhetoric versus what really needed to happen and I think that’s why Gibbs and everyone else is retrenching. Because the president probably sat back and said, ‘Hey, guys. I can’t order a 120-day review if I’ve already said the process is flawed.’”
Friday’s meeting coincided with a decision to drop charges against Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, a Saudi prisoner at Guantanamo who is alleged to have masterminded the Cole attack. Lawyers following the case said the administration had little choice but to drop the charges because al-Nashiri was scheduled to be arraigned Monday. If he had pled guilty, the constitutional protection against double jeopardy may have made it impossible for Obama to order the Cole case moved to a civilian court or some other forum.
Participants in the meeting said Obama emphasized that the charges against al-Nashiri were dismissed without prejudice, meaning they could be refiled. The president "calmed people down that he wasn't releasing people," said Gloria Clodfelter, whose son Kenneth was killed on the Cole.