WASHINGTON — After an emotional, private meeting at the White House with President Barack Obama, survivors and victims' relatives of two al Qaida attacks said Friday that the president quelled some of their fears about closing the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba detention center, promised them an "open-door" policy and a hand in shaping anti-terror policies, and said he is considering a modified military commission system to try detainees.
In a question-and-answer period with Obama that lasted about 35 minutes, some of the roughly 40 attendees affected by the USS Cole and Sept. 11, 2001, attacks emphasized concerns that a year might not be long enough to safely empty the Guantanamo prison as planned, said participant Kirk Lippold, a retired Navy commander in charge of the USS Cole when it was attacked on Oct. 12, 2000.
Participants also made clear their fears about detainees being brought to the United States and into a court system that afforded them full constitutional privileges. Obama did not rule anything out, but said he also had his concerns, and "he did open the door that he might do modified military commissions" instead, Lippold said.
"I think people were more reserved, and they were willing to listen and extend to him the olive branch of 'let's wait and see what you're going to do,'" Lippold said.
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The president was greeted with applause when he entered the meeting in Room 350 of the Eisenhower Executive Office building just west of the White House, said New Yorker Valerie Lucznikowska, whose stockbroker nephew died in the World Trade Center on 9-11.
She said the president made his way around the room shaking hands with some and hugging others, and left the attendees feeling impressed, if not universally sold on his plans.
"He made the point that he is closing Guantanamo because it is a symbol to the world of something that got tangled up in Abu Ghraib," she said. "We need our foreign allies to help us catch the terrorists."
Obama told the participants that his general counsel, Gregory Craig, would be their point of contact, and that the door was always open. He also assured them that Abd el Rahim al Nashiri, an alleged organizer of the Cole bombing, would remain in custody and eventually be tried.
Obama had invited the group to address the concerns of vocal critics among them and to explain the administration's overall thinking, as well as the withdrawal of military commission charges late Thursday against Nashiri, who was facing the death penalty.
To some extent, Obama and his aides also seemed to be seeking to reframe the reasoning for closing Guantanamo.
On the campaign trail, Obama, a constitutional lawyer, spoke often about how indefinite detentions went against basic principles of American democracy and human rights, and he said the end did not justify the means.
On Friday, however, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said, "I think the main concern that the president has is the military commissions' failure to bring those in detention to swift justice."
Lippold said that Obama told the attendees that "his goal is to provide swift and certain justice for terrorists; he views Guantanamo Bay as an impediment to justice."
(Rosenberg, of The Miami Herald, reported from Miami.)
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