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'Struggle' to close Guantanamo Bay

Guantanamo Bay camp
Political battles are predicted over the future of Guantanamo Bay

By Jonathan Beale
BBC News, Guantanamo Bay

US President Barack Obama is expected to sign an executive order to start the process of closing down the Guantanamo Bay detention camp within days.

But the experience of one senior Bush administration official suggests that this will be easier said than done.

In an exclusive interview with the BBC, John Bellinger, who was Condoleezza Rice's legal advisor, spoke about the political battles that took place over its future.

For the last four years, Mr Bellinger had the unenviable task of defending America's treatment of terrorist suspects, while behind closed doors trying to bring an end to Guantanamo.

Without the burdens of office, he confesses that the prison camp has damaged America's reputation around the world. "It's certainly been a huge blackeye for the United States - an albatross round our neck."

It is easy to say it was a mistake in hindsight, he adds, though at the time he argues setting up Guantanamo was "perfectly logical".

John Bellinger
Despite the endless debate about what to do - and a recognition by many that it was causing us real damage - we could simply not evolve into a position to close it down
John Bellinger,
advisor to Condoleezza Rice

What he considers to be the greater "tragedy" was that over time, when it became apparent it was such a problem, the Bush administration was unable to "pivot" to get it closed.

He says that despite his, Condoleezza Rice's and more recently Defence Secretary Robert Gates' best efforts, there were those who had "strongly-held views" who were still opposed.

I ask who? He replies "obviously the Vice President" (Dick Cheney), along with figures in the Department of Justice and the intelligence agencies.

"The real sadness," he says, "[was that] despite the endless debate about what to do - and a recognition by many that it was causing us real damage - we could simply not evolve into a position to close it down."

No solutions

During his time in office, Mr Bellinger put forward proposals to empty Guantanamo.

These included transferring most detainees to other countries and sending the remainder - the most dangerous - to a military base on the US mainland.

It is likely that an Obama administration is now contemplating a similar plan. But Mr Bellinger warns that will not be easy.

He points out that nearly all of the 254 detainees still being held at Guantanamo come from countries with poor human rights records. And until now, few European countries have offered to take them instead.

Mr Bellinger says that as he travelled the world looking for countries to help he "secretly agreed" with many of their criticisms, but there was never any suggestion as how to close Guantanamo down.

Former detainee Moazzam begg and ex-guard Chris Arendt

"Not one" offered a solution, he adds, clearly frustrated.

He hopes that the new administration will have better luck. But he still thinks that it "will have a devil of a time" trying to close the camp.

He predicts "a political battle royal" if Mr Obama tries to transfer the most dangerous detainees to a US federal prison or military camp on the mainland. He says there are too many politicians and members of the public who will say "not in my backyard".

And then there is the question of how to try them. Mr Bellinger was a critic of the special military commissions set up at Guantanamo.

He says he gnashed his teeth as officials went "behind my back" to set them in process. Now though, he argues that after the intervention of the US Congress, the military commissions have become more workable.

Given the criticism, he says he would understand if Mr Obama felt the need to start all over again.

Greatest mistake

But there is still the thorny issue of what evidence would be admissible in a federal court. Namely the "enhanced" interrogations used to extract information by the CIA.

Mr Bellinger is clearly uneasy talking about torture. But he says it was "very unfortunate" that techniques like waterboarding - simulated drowning - were ever used.

In hindsight, he says the Bush administration's greatest mistake was going it alone.

Now out of office, he plans to continue a dialogue with other countries about how best to deal with and detain terrorist suspects.

He is clearly a man with a conscience. But his experience shows that Barack Obama's job will not be easy.

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