WASHINGTON - The first court conviction of a Guantanamo Bay detainee did little to push President Barack Obama closer to shuttering the island prison, making it increasingly likely his campaign promise will remain unmet by the time his current term expires.
Jurors in New York City on Wednesday convicted Ahmed Ghailani of conspiracy to blow up government buildings in the al-Qaida attacks on two U.S. embassies in 1998, but they acquitted him on more than 280 other charges. He is the only person transferred from Guantanamo Bay for trial since the U.S. began filling the military prison in Cuba eight years ago.
In some ways, the conviction was a vindication for an administration that believes the judicial system established by the Constitution has proved itself capable of handling terrorism cases.
Predictions of new terrorist attacks and huge police expenses surrounding the trial never materialized. Ghailani now faces 20 years to life in prison, longer than three of the four sentences handed down by military tribunals at Guantanamo Bay.
Despite the acquittals, which included murder counts for each of the 224 people killed in the bombings, the Justice Department said it was pleased Ghailani faces up to life in prison and said it would seek that sentence.
But senior officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss private discussions, conceded that the one-count conviction, combined with big electoral wins for Republicans this month, will make it harder to close the prison.
The administration had hoped for an overwhelming conviction to help ease congressional opposition to Obama's long-stymied plan for moving the detainees to U.S. soil. The administration must notify Congress before any transfer, and Republicans have said they would block such efforts.
"They couldn't come close to getting that done when the Democrats were in charge," said Rep. Peter King, a New York Republican who is expected to be the next chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee. "There's no way they're going to get it now that Republicans are in charge."
Administration officials believe there are only a handful of options for closing Guantanamo Bay:
- Prosecute the detainees. Some, like Ghailani, could face criminal trials. Others could face military commissions. Regardless, the administration wants those trials in the U.S., not at Guantanamo.
- Transfer some prisoners to other countries. Many already have been cleared for release. But Yemeni citizens make up the largest contingent, and the U.S. doesn't trust Yemen to monitor them if they are released. Two failed airline bombings originating in Yemen in the past year have made such release efforts even more difficult.
- Hold prisoners indefinitely. Top administration officials have said they don't like the idea but would consider it in some form, if the detainees were held inside the U.S. with some review by courts.
Ghailani's conviction does not make any of those options easier. When Obama announced, days after his election, that he would close Guantanamo within a year, he had hoped to move detainees to a refurbished old prison in Thomson, Ill.
Even if, somehow, that plan were to get resurrected early next year, much of 2011 would be spent renovating the facility. Actually transferring detainees would get pushed back to 2012, a presidential election year in which political differences are amplified and compromises are rare.
The Ghailani case also did little to resolve the question of what will happen to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and the other masterminds of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists attacks.
The Justice Department had planned to prosecute those cases in civilian courts, but the administration reversed course amid political opposition. The move left a sour taste with some prosecutors, who felt the White House was letting political considerations influence the department, a criticism Democrats often lobbed at President George W. Bush.
Ghailani, like Mohammed, was held for years in a secret CIA prison overseas and subjected to some of the harshest interrogation tactics. His trial was seen as a test of whether those actions would sink the case or whether prosecutors could salvage a conviction. Prosecutors could face the same challenge in the 9/11 trials.
A federal judge prohibited prosecutors from calling a key witness in the Ghailani case, saying the witness had been identified while Ghailani was interrogated at the CIA prison.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican who is seen as key to any deal to close Guantanamo, said late Wednesday that he was disappointed with the Ghailani verdict and said the government was endangering the nation "by criminalizing the war."
"We are at war with al-Qaida," Graham said. "Members of the organization and their associates should be treated as warriors, not common criminals."