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Joan Smith: Invite Guantanamo inmates into US

Obama needs a grand gesture to separate himself from Bush. He should offer shelter to detainees

It was the day when the undead walked in Washington. Barely had Barack Obama completed a thoughtful speech about one of the most intractable problems he has inherited from the Bush administration, namely Guantanamo Bay, then one of the chief architects of detention without trial emerged from the dark place he now inhabits to peddle the same old message of fear. Former vice-president Dick Cheney chose last week to make a speech of his own, which served to demonstrate how sensible the American people were to distance themselves from his poisonous legacy.

Even now Cheney doesn't get it, defying the changed public mood which resulted in Obama's victory and making a case for policies which the country has already judged indefensible. He likes "enhanced interrogation methods" and is still refusing to call them torture, long after most Americans have conceded that water-boarding of detainees at Guantanamo Bay was beyond the pale.

His speech was inconsistent, dishonest – he made the breathtaking claim that criticising CIA interrogators amounts to casting "terrorists and murderers as innocent victims" – and suggested that Obama's policies were putting the US at risk of another terrorist attack.

"In the fight against terrorism, there is no middle ground, and half measures keep you half exposed," Cheney warned, echoing former Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater's famous (indeed notorious) defence of extremism: "I would remind you that extremism in the defence of liberty is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!"

Goldwater lost massively to Lyndon Johnson, whom he loathed, in the 1964 presidential election and it's clear that Cheney's feelings towards Obama are no warmer. In fact, although the President did not show it during his speech at the National Archives in Washington on Thursday, he could be forgiven for feeling pretty cross with Cheney and his old boss.

With considerable restraint, Obama described the detention camp on the Cuban mainland as a "misguided experiment" which had resulted in "a mess"; no incoming president would welcome the problem of 240 prisoners in an offshore facility, ranging from extremely dangerous terrorists to insignificant players, many of whom have been traumatised by torture.

Obama's plans to close the camp by next January have already run into trouble, with the Senate voting overwhelmingly last week to cut the $80m (£50m) he had asked for to accomplish the task.

This is not Obama's first setback as he grapples with the Guantanamo problem. Earlier this month, the German foreign minister got cold feet about accepting a group of nine Uighurs (members of a mainly Muslim minority who have suffered severe repression from the Chinese government), fearing retaliation from China, which says it wants to put them on trial.

At home, Obama's suggestion that some of the most dangerous inmates could be moved to maximum-security prisons on the American mainland has caused outrage at both ends of the political spectrum; the right believes that top al-Qa'ida operatives might escape and organise terrorist attacks, while the left dislikes

his proposal to construct a "legitimate legal framework" which would allow them to be detained indefinitely without trial.

The first objection is nonsense, as Obama himself pointed out last week: "Nobody has ever escaped from one of our federal supermax prisons, which hold hundreds of convicted terrorists." Liberals might riposte that the US's huge federal penal colonies are nothing to boast about, but it is true that supermax prisons have successfully contained significant convicted terrorists, among them the blind cleric Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman who masterminded the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, and four other men serving life sentences for their part in the first attack on the Twin Towers.

But Obama's proposal that some of the Guantanamo detainees should be held without trial in American prisons is genuinely troubling and he knows it, characterising it as "the toughest issue we face".

The problem, in essence, is this: the fact that the men were seized in dubious circumstances and then mistreated by the loathed Bush administration does not mean that they are without exception innocent.

There is an abiding reluctance on the left to acknowledge the extent of the worldwide Islamist threat, despite one terrorist outrage after another; civilians have died in bombings in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Indonesia, Israel, Egypt, Morocco, Turkey, France, Spain and the UK, confirming the existence of Islamist networks dedicated to killing men, women and children – including Muslims – who do not share their ideology.

The Obama administration does not share this blind spot, which is why it cannot simply close the facility and send all the remaining prisoners home. An unpublished report from the Pentagon, obtained by The New York Times last week, illustrates how difficult it is to assess the threat posed by individuals: according to the report, 74 of the 534 prisoners released from Guantanamo Bay so far have returned to terrorism or Islamist activity.

The most significant is Said Ali al-Shihri, a leader of the Yemeni branch of al-Qa'ida and now a suspect in the bombing of the US embassy in the Yemeni capital, Sana, last year. Another is an Afghan Taliban commander, Abdullah Ghulam Rasoul. The Pentagon report shows that the process of release is not without risk, but the rate of recidivism isn't unduly high.

Where evidence of involvement in terrorist activity exists, trials in civil courts – not the military tribunals set under Bush and unexpectedly reprieved by Obama – are essential. If there isn't sufficient evidence or it was obtained through torture, Obama will need to amass sufficient moral capital to win over critics of his plan for "prolonged detention" in federal prisons.

It won't be easy but he could begin by making a dramatic gesture: instead of trying to persuade third countries to take them, he should offer shelter in the US to those prisoners who aren't judged a risk but would face unjust trials if they were sent home. The goodwill that swept him into office last year means that Obama is uniquely placed to show such magnanimity, and he could plausibly argue that it would increase America's security.

Images of shackled detainees in orange jumpsuits have inflamed anti-American sentiment across the world since the Guantanamo Bay facility started receiving prisoners in 2002. Inviting some of them to live in the US would be an extraordinarily powerful statement that the Bush era – and the influence of his unrepentant crony Dick Cheney – is over for good.

Alan Watkins is away