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Published: Thursday, 5/21/2009

Senators united on vote to keep prison open


WASHINGTON - In a rare, bipartisan defeat for President Obama, the Senate voted overwhelmingly yesterday to keep the prison at Guantanamo Bay open for the foreseeable future and forbid the transfer of any detainees to facilities in the United States.

Democrats lined up with Republicans in the 90-6 vote that came on the heels of a similar move a week ago in the House, underscoring widespread apprehension among Mr. Obama's congressional allies over voters' strong feelings about bringing detainees to the United States from the prison in Cuba.

The President readied a speech for this morning on the U.S. fight against terrorism, at a time when liberals have chafed at some of his decisions.

In spite of lawmakers' concerns, the Obama Administration plans to move a top al-Qaeda suspect held at Guantanamo Bay to New York to stand trial for the deadly 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa, administration officials said yesterday. The suspect, Ahmed Ghailani, would be the first Guantanamo detainee brought to the U.S. and the first to face trial in a civilian criminal court.

One U.S. official said Ghailani will be prosecuted on charges that he played a role in the deaths of more than 200 people in the nearly simultaneous bombings of the U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in August, 1998, the U.S. official said.

A Tanzanian, Ghailani was seized in Pakistan and was one of the 14 "high-value detainees" transferred to Guantanamo from secret CIA prisons in September, 2006.

Mr. Obama has vowed to close the Guantanamo prison by January, 2010, and the Senate's vote was not the final word on the matter.

It will be next month at the earliest before Congress completes work on the legislation, giving the White House time pursue a compromise that would allow the President to fulfill his pledge.

But Mr. Obama's maneuvering room was further constrained during the day when FBI Director Robert Mueller told a congressional panel that he had concerns about bringing Guantanamo Bay detainees to prisons in the United States.

Among the risks is "the potential for individuals undertaking attacks in the United States," said Mr. Mueller, who was appointed by President George W. Bush in 2001 and is serving a 10-year fixed term in office.

Additionally, U.S. District Judge John Bates ruled this week that some prisoners - but not all - can be held indefinitely at Guantanamo without being charged, thus increasing the pressure on the administration to develop a plan for the men held there.

All six opponents of the proposal in the Senate yesterday were Democrats: Sens. Dick Durbin of Illinois, Tom Harkin of Iowa, Patrick Leahy of Vermont, Carl Levin of Michigan, and Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island.

The lopsided vote was a victory for the Senate Republicans, who recently have turned their attention to Mr. Obama's policies on foreign policy and terrorism after failing to make headway in criticizing his economic program.

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