Despite his stated desire to close the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, President Bush has decided not to do so and never considered proposals drafted in the State Department and the Pentagon that outlined options for transferring the detainees elsewhere, according to senior administration officials.
Bush's top advisers held a series of meetings at the White House this summer after a Supreme Court ruling in June cast doubt on the future of the detention center. But Bush adopted the view of his most hawkish advisers that closing Guantanamo would involve too many legal and political risks to be acceptable, now or anytime soon, the officials said.
The administration is proceeding, they said, on the assumption that Guantanamo will remain open not only for the rest of Bush's presidency but also well beyond as the site for military tribunals of those facing terrorism-related charges and for the long prison sentences that could follow convictions.
The effect of Bush's stance is to leave in place a prison that has become a reviled symbol of the administration's fight against terrorism and to leave another contentious foreign policy decision for the next president.
Both presidential candidates, Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama, have called for closing Guantanamo and could reverse Bush's policy, though probably not quickly, since neither has spelled out precisely how to deal with some of the thorniest legal consequences of shutting the prison.
Bush's aides insist that the president's desire is still to close Guantanamo when conditions permit, and the White House has not announced any decision. But administration officials say that even Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the most powerful advocates for closing the prison, have quietly acquiesced to the arguments of more hawkish advisers, including Vice President Dick Cheney.
A senior administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the administration's internal deliberations said it would be much harder to fulfill a campaign promise to close the prison than either candidate has stated. "This may not be the ideal answer, but what we are trying to do is work with the system we've got," the official said.
Bush's decision followed a review of the implications of the Supreme Court's ruling in June that the 250 detainees at Guantanamo have the right to make habeas corpus appeals.
The ruling, Boumediene v. Bush, undercut a core rationale for keeping the prison off U.S. soil, raising expectations that Bush might at last move to close it, a prospect he first raised in June 2006, when he said, "I'd like to close Guantanamo, but I also recognize that we're holding some people that are darn dangerous, and that we better have a plan to deal with them in our courts."
In August 2007, Bush said that "it should be a goal of the nation to shut down Guantanamo ... but it is not as easy a subject as some may think on the surface."
Bush has harshly criticized the ruling, including at least twice in fundraising speeches for Republicans. When he met with his senior security advisers, no options for closing the prison were on the agenda, the administration officials said.
Cheney and his chief of staff, David S. Addington, have made it clear in the internal discussions this year that keeping Guantanamo open under a new president would validate the administration's decisions dealing with terrorists, the officials said.
Closing Guantanamo would most likely mean abandoning prosecutions against some detainees and risking the release of others who still pose a threat to the United States and its allies.
An administration official who favors closing the prison suggested that the next president might reconsider after having access to the classified evidence that the Bush administration believes justifies the indefinite detention of dozens of detainees.
"The new president will gnash his teeth and beat his head against the wall when he realizes how complicated it is to close Guantanamo," the official said.