With the simple stroke of his pen, President Obama reversed one of the most controversial Bush administration policies Thursday.
He ordered the close of the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, within one year. But the biggest political and logistical question remains wide open: Once Guantanamo is shuttered where will the detainees go?
The executive order to close the prison, at which detainees accused of terrorism have been held -- many for several years and without trial -- was one of a raft of measures the new president signed that will shut down secret CIA interrogation camps and restrict the use of harsh interrogation methods.
The order calls for a review to determine whether the Guantanamo inmates should be released and transferred to their countries of origin or to third countries, or whether they should be held and tried on U.S. soil.
That directive, however, raises a host of questions, among them: Who should conduct those reviews? What types of courts -- civilian or military -- should handle the trials? Is evidence obtained through torture admissible? And should the United States send detainees to countries in which they might be tortured?
"If they are released or transferred, I think we're talking about re-immigration or sending them abroad," said Sarah Mendelson, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "Decision makers in Europe are talking about a willingness to accept people. There is going to have to be an extended conversation between the State Department and various governments about how this will happen."
Soon after Obama signed the order, some European leaders signaled a willingness to take some of the detainees, the first of whom were captured in Afghanistan and brought to Guantanamo soon after the United States went to war with the Taliban after Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
"There has been a clear consensus throughout on the need to close this detention center," said Portuguese Foreign Minister Luis Amado, in a letter to the European Union. "We should send a clear signal of our willingness to help the U.S. government in that regard, namely through the resettlement of detainees. As far as the Portuguese government is concerned, we will be available to participate."
Europeans Signal an Interest
The U.S. Defense Department says about 50 of the 250 prisoners, who come from Azerbaijan, Algeria, Afghanistan, Chad, China, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, are awaiting freedom but cannot go home again on security or political grounds.
The Europeans are torn between living up to their rhetoric of the last eight years, in which they condemned the prison, and now having to accept suspected terrorists whom former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld referred to as the "worst of the worst."
"Here we have the first example of how this new Obama politics will demand more of Europe -- not less -- than Bush's so-called unilateralism," said Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini, who declined to add Italy to the list of nations willing to accept inmates. "America will probably ask some European countries to take in these people, who will no longer be at Guantanamo but won't be free to wander the streets of New York."
Many Republican lawmakers who are opposed to the camp's closure have signaled their discomfort at putting prisoners in their home states and towns, even in some of the country's most heavily guarded prisons.
"I think the first thing we have to remember is that we're talking about terrorists here," said Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio. "Do we bring them into our borders? Do we release them back into the battlefield, like some 61 detainees that have been released we know are back on the battlefield? And do we release them to get back and rejoin this fight? ... I'm concerned that some will be let go too soon and could end up back on the battlefield."
Boehner's concern is not unfounded. U.S. officials believe a detainee who was released after six years in Guantanamo Bay is now a top figure in the Yemeni branch of al Qaeda.
A U.S. counterterrorism official confirmed to The Associated Press that Said Ali al-Shihri was released in 2007 after six years of confinement. The official, speaking on condition of anonymity in order to discuss foreign intelligence, says al-Shihri is a deputy in what's known as "al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula."
Supermax, an Option
Sen. John Cronyn, R-Texas, expressed concerned about closing Guantanamo and allowing the prisoners into the United States. "Clearly, these are not the kind of people you would want to put in our city jails or our state prisons," he said.
According to Mendelson, however, the United States is experienced at imprisoning and trying terrorists and would be able to handle the 60 or so detainees who will likely be tried rather than released.
"We have convicted 145 international terrorists since 2001, only three of those have been convictions of Guantanamo detainees. The U.S. criminal justice system is able to handle dangerous people in pretrial detention facilities," she said.
Likely prisons where the detainees might be sent include Fort Leavenworth, a military brig in Kansas, and the so-called Supermax Prison in Florence, Colo., which currently holds Ramsi Yusef, who bombed the World Trade Center in 1993, and Ted Kaczynski, the "Unabomber."
Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., does not want the detainees sent to Leavenworth, but at least one Democratic lawmaker has expressed an interest in housing the inmates.
"Sure, I'd take 'em," Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., told Fox News. "They're no more dangerous in my district than in Guantanamo."
Historically there is little precedent for what do with the prisoners, said military historian Lt. Colonel Robert A. Lynn.
"These are really uncharted waters. There really isn't a standard procedure to follow here," he said.
"Generally when you have a camp of prisoners, your enemy has a camp of your guys and you exchange prisoners. These guys are in a state of limbo as to whether they're even real prisoners of war," he said.