Michael D. Shear, Peter Finn and Dan Eggen
The Washington Post
Thursday, February 5, 2009; 6:23 PM
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
In an interview with Politico.com, Cheney accused the Obama administration
of following “campaign rhetoric” on Guantánamo 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 Guantánamo
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 Guantánamo, 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 Guantánamo 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 Guantánamo,
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 Guantánamo. The Pentagon has dismissed
without prejudice charges in six cases, and reinstated them later in three of
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 Guantánamo. Defense lawyers
said they would insist that all detainees be treated equally during the review
The president may also want to explain some possible alternative to military
commissions, including moving proceedings to federal court or military courts
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 Guantánamo Bay prompted differing
reactions among various groups.
September 11th Advocates, for example, issued a statement last month praising
Obama’s announcement and calling Guantánamo “an enormous stain on America’s
“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 Guantánamo 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.