GUANTANAMO BAY

9/11 families' plea: Keep Guantánamo open

 

The families of Sept. 11 victims have emerged as powerful voices in the effort to stop the White House from closing the Guantánamo Bay war courts and prison camps.

crosenberg@MiamiHerald.com

Self-described ``Mama for Obama'' Judith Reiss sat in the spectator's gallery at the war court here last week clutching a photo of her bond-trader son Joshua, who perished in the World Trade Center on Sept.11, 2001. She then offered a painful observation.

``Justice moves very, very slowly,'' the 60-year-old Bucks County, Pa., mother of five said of the Thursday hearing that resolved very little. ``I hope that I'm alive when this case is finally solved.''

Then she offered advice to Barack Obama, the president she stumped for door-to-door in last year's election: Don't close the prison camps at Guantánamo. Don't abandon military commissions justice.

Heartbroken relatives of 9/11 attack victims have emerged as a key constituency in the campaign to stop Obama from making good on his Jan.22 executive order to empty the prison camps and revise the controversial military trials within a year.

Obama argued that Guantánamo has become an anti-American recruiting tool in the arsenal of alQaeda. Moreover, he said military commissions designed during the George W. Bush years lacked fundamental U.S. guarantees of due process and were at odds with American values.

``There is also no question that Guantánamo set back the moral authority that is America's strongest currency in the world,'' he said in a May21 address to the nation.

But three times since the 2008 presidential campaign, the Pentagon has brought parents, siblings and children of Sept. 11 victims to watch alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed and co-conspirators defend themselves at a court designed by the Bush administration to mete out military justice. Both Obama and rival Sen. John McCain pledged to ``close Guantánamo'' during the campaign.

Three times, the court watchers described the behavior of the confessed alQaeda acolytes as making a mockery of American justice.

And three times they held news conferences urging the White House to keep the prison camps open and the war court here intact as the speediest, safest way to close the books on the former CIA-held captives accused of mass murder in the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil.

``I did not come with a vengeful heart,'' said Pompano Beach mother Janet Roy, whose firefighter brother, William Burke, died saving others at the World Trade Center. ``I came to see for myself. ... I know the right thing is being done here, in a carefully thought-out manner.''

Theirs is a powerful and emotional message from a sampling of victims' kin, chosen by lottery, escorted to this base gingerly and with sensitivity to the families of the 2,974 people killed in al Qaeda's coordinated hijackings that sent planes plunging into the Pentagon, the World Trade Center towers and a Pennsylvania field.

When they left for last week's session Tuesday on a charter flight from Andrews Air Force Base, the pilot pointed out a special sight -- Air Force One awaiting its next mission.

A POWERFUL VOICE

The victims' families have emerged as a centerpiece in the prosecution's message at trial.

Like Reiss, they have brought photos of their lost loved ones to remind the media and observers of Sept.11's human toll.

Last week's group met with prison camp guards exercising on the eve of the routine administrative hearing to thank them for their service. They ate dinner with senior officers at O'Kelly's, an Irish pub for off-duty U.S. forces.

And they were given a prime-time podium in the briefing room built for up to 60 media members. Sixteen organizations were there last week, ranging from Al Jazeera to The Washington Times.

``The question is whether President Obama and the current administration will delay justice for us,'' said Melissa Long of Leesburg, Va., whose boyfriend was killed on 9/11 and who later married a man who lost his parents that day.

WRONG MESSAGE?

``If given the choice, these men would do it over again,'' she said after watching three prisoners make brief war-court appearances. Closing the prison camps, she said, ``makes us look foolish and weak and invites more attacks.''

It is no coincidence that the observers are such ferocious defenders of Guantánamo, said John Gerardo, a Defense Department civilian who manages the victim lottery system.

Although the guests are picked at random, family members self-select in volunteering.

At times, Gerardo said, the lottery has chosen family members who are critics of the camps and court. But those people have decided against traveling there because of their opposition.

A Fox News Channel correspondent suggested to Reiss that her message would be an unpopular one in the White House.

Reiss said her son's death had left her inconsolable, she said, and she ``never recovered'' and is determined to speak out against the closure policy of the president she endorsed last year as, in her words, ``A Mama for Obama.''

``I have a right to say, `Mr. President, you are making a mistake.' I'm a patriotic American. I have the right to say, `I don't agree with you,''' she said. ``I didn't have the right to say that for eight years. I'm saying that now.''

Read more Guantánamo stories from the Miami Herald

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