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Obama's humiliating concession on Guantanamo

Mark Mardell | 21:15 UK time, Monday, 7 March 2011

One of Barack Obama's very first acts as president was to sign an order closing the detention centre for suspected terrorists at the Guantanamo Bay naval base in Cuba.

The administration says that is still its aim.

But now, the president has ended a two-year-old ban on trying detainees in military courts and authorised a new procedure for holding the prisoners without trial.

The White House is dressing this up as the resumption of military trials after tightening up safeguards and after the introduction of new reviews of the cases of those held without trial.

Mr Obama's aides say they want to sign up to the Geneva Convention on the treatment of such prisoners.

They say it is "unwise and unnecessary" to cut off the possibility of trial in federal civilian courts and will try to overturn the restrictions on those trials that Congress passed last year.

But it is hard to disguise the fact that Mr Obama's lofty ambitions have been in a two-year-long collision with the mood of the country - or at least that of the vocal politicians who say they represent America.

Plans to try Guantanamo detainees in ordinary courts, as criminals, on US soil provoked outrage from those who said the move would have put Americans in danger. They thought the very act of bringing such dangerous men to the US was risky, and argued it raised the danger that they would be found not guilty and released.

But underlying all this is a conviction that the alleged al-Qaeda members are neither criminals nor enemy soldiers but something other and worse and do not deserve the safeguards afforded by modern societies to either category.

In particular, there's been a strong movement against the plan to try the man described as the mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks - Khalid Sheikh Mohammed - to trial in New York. Although senior administration officials would not comment on individual cases, it seems likely he will be tried by a military tribunal. They say the next round of charges may come within days or weeks.

This is all pretty humiliating, but the president has to clear the decks of such contentious issues well before next year's election.

Mr Obama made a very clear attempt to break with the past within days of becoming president, declaring the US did not have to "continue with a false choice between our safety and our ideals".

Just under two years away from another election he may still feel the same but he has recognised that for many, safety beats ideals, hands down, every time. It is a symbolic compromise with the political reality in America.

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