President Barack Obama has admitted for the first time that the US will miss the January 2010 deadline he set for closing the “war on terror” prison at Guantanamo Bay.
“Guantanamo – we had a specific deadline that was missed,” Obama told NBC television, in one of a flurry of interviews he gave on his tour of Asia.
Obama vowed during his first week in office that he would close Guantanamo within a year, saying that the prison camp did not adhere to US standards on human and civil rights.
The White House has said it will continue to push for the facility’s closure, and is moving to repatriate some detainees who have been cleared for release while seeking countries willing to provide asylum to others.
The US leader also said Americans should not be “fearful” of the prospect that five men accused of masterminding the September 11, 2001 attacks are to go on trial in New York City, a notion that has sparked vocal domestic opposition.
Capital punishment for 9/11 plotter
“I think this notion that somehow we have to be fearful, that these terrorists possess some special powers that prevent us from presenting evidence against them, locking them up and exacting swift justice, I think that has been a fundamental mistake,” he told CNN.
The US leader told NBC television he did not anticipate serious negative fallout from the coming capital punishment trial in New York of professed 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.
“I don’t think it would be offensive at all when he’s convicted and when the death penalty is applied to him,” Obama told NBC, expressing “confidence” in the government’s case.
“What I’m absolutely clear about is that I have complete confidence in the American people and in our legal traditions, and the prosecutors, tough prosecutors, from New York who specialize in terrorism.”
Attorney General Eric Holder announced last week that five men accused of plotting the attacks would be moved from Guantanamo Bay to New York for prosecution.
The five terror suspects will be tried at a courthouse just steps from Ground Zero, where thousands lost their lives after hijacked airliners were flown into the two World Trade Center towers.
Holder’s announcement, made while Obama visits Asia, prompted furious reactions from a number of victims’ families and outrage among Republican politician.
‘Mixed messages’ on terrorism
Republican Senator John McCain, Obama’s former election rival, warned the decision sent “a mixed message about America’s resolve in the fight against terrorism.
“We are at war, and we must bring terrorists to justice in a manner consistent with the horrific acts of war they have committed,” he said.
A CNN poll on Tuesday showed that almost two-thirds of Americans disagree with Obama’s decision.
Sixty-four per cent of those surveyed said Mohammed should be tried in a military court, while only 34 per cent agreed with Obama that the civilian judicial system was the best way forward.
Seventy-eight per cent of those polled said they thought he should be executed if found guilty, and a quarter of those said they did not normally support capital punishment.
But Obama said he believed the decision was the right one.
“You know, I said to the attorney general, ‘Make a decision based on the law,'” he said.
“I also have great confidence in our… courts, the courts that have tried hundreds of terrorist suspects who are imprisoned right now in the United States.”