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Little Progress On Closing Guantanamo As Trials Start

The White House says it's sticking to its promise to close the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Since President Obama took the oath of office, 64 detainees have been relocated.

But as the first military trials of Obama's presidency get under way in Cuba this week, that may be the only part of the Guantanamo machinery that's operating as planned. The plan to close the prison has hit a series of roadblocks -- some political and some of the administration's own making.

For example, advisers split over whether to try the alleged masterminds of the Sept. 11 attacks in civilian courts in New York or in military tribunals. New York politicians balked, so that decision is still on ice.

"The basic problem is that you have an administration that's internally divided about how to proceed, that has no obvious partner," said Benjamin Wittes of the Brookings Institution, "and a toxic political atmosphere in which this is very few people's highest priority."

Partners Hard To Find In Congress

Attorney General Eric Holder talked last month to CBS about unexpected hurdles in the administration's path.

"There have been restrictions that have been talked about by Congress, some of which have been imposed," Holder said on Face the Nation. "We're going to have to work with Congress in order, I think, ultimately, to bring this case to trial."

But finding partners in Congress has been a lonely effort, too, with the sole exception of South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham.

Graham introduced legislation last week that would give the administration legal underpinning to hold detainees indefinitely and permit them to challenge their detention. That bill had no co-sponsors.

And both political parties voted, again and again, to bar the White House from spending federal money to bring detainees onto American soil.

Jameel Jaffer of the American Civil Liberties Union says he's disappointed by the atmosphere.

"The fact remains that we still have well over 100 people at Guantanamo who are being held in most cases indefinitely, without charge or trial," Jaffer said. "They've never had a meaningful opportunity to contest the evidence against them. And that's a moral travesty as well as a legal one."

Little Action

To the dismay of human rights groups and even some White House advisers, the first real activity in months is this week's military trial of Omar Khadr, who was captured by the U.S. military in 2002 when he was just 15 years old. He's accused of throwing a grenade that killed a special operations forces soldier in Afghanistan.

Another detainee, Ahmed Mahmoud al-Qosi, pleaded guilty Monday in a separate military commission proceeding. The terms of that plea deal are secret for now, a condition that some critics say contradicts Obama's pledge of transparency.

Holder told CBS last month that closing Guantanamo remains a priority. "Guantanamo serves as a recruiting tool for al-Qaida," Holder said. "The intelligence continues to show that that is true. It has served as a wedge between us and our traditional allies."

But Wittes at Brookings says he sees little action behind the rhetoric.

"The administration continues to talk about closing Guantanamo as a national security imperative and doing nothing to effectuate it," Wittes said. "Now, either it is a national security imperative -- in which case you should be fighting for it -- or it is not a national security imperative -- in which case you shouldn't be saying that it is."

According to the Justice Department, 176 men remain at Guantanamo, down from 240 at the start of the Obama administration.

The military commission proceedings in Cuba will continue through August.

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Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.