June 1, 2009 -- WASHINGTON — Americans are overwhelmingly opposed to closing the detention center for suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay and moving some of the detainees to prisons on U.S. soil, a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll finds.
By more than 2-1, those surveyed say Guantanamo shouldn't be closed. By more than 3-1, they oppose moving some of the accused terrorists housed there to prisons in their own states.
The findings underscore the difficult task President Obama faces in convincing those at home that he should follow through on his campaign promise to close the prison in Cuba, especially in the absence of a plan of where the prisoners would go.
In many parts of the world, however, Gitmo has become a symbol of U.S. arrogance and abuse, and Obama has cited its closure as a way to lay the foundation for better relations. He is scheduled to deliver a major address aimed at the Muslim world on Thursday from Cairo.
It is one of the few subjects on which most Americans side with the views of the Bush administration over its successor.
"Coming up on eight years after Sept. 11, fear remains, and fear is politically potent," says political scientist Paul Freedman of the University of Virginia, who studies public opinion. "When it comes to the issue of terrorism … people are inclined to err on the side of that fear."
Former vice president Dick Cheney said Monday that Obama made "a mistake" in promising to close the facility by the end of the year.
"I think it's going to be very difficult," he said at a National Press Club luncheon, given the reluctance of U.S. allies and citizens to accept its prisoners. "These are bad actors. These are the worst of the worst."
In a speech last month, Obama said the nation's "Supermax" prisons could be relied on to hold detainees. Government lawyers are reviewing the status of the 240 prisoners at Guantanamo to determine whether they should be tried in federal court or before a military tribunal, released overseas or held without trial.
In the survey, Americans were inclined to accept the argument by Cheney and former president George W. Bush that the detention center had made the United States safer. By 40%-18%, they said the prison had strengthened national security rather than weakened it.
Those who want the prison to remain open feel more strongly on the subject that those who want to close it. A 54% majority of those polled say the prison shouldn't be closed, and that they'll be upset if the administration moves forward to close it.
Last month, Senate Democrats stripped $80 million to close Gitmo from a spending bill and blocked transfer of detainees to U.S. soil, at least for now.
The survey of 1,015 adults, which was taken by landline and cellphone Friday through Sunday, has a margin of error of +/– 3 percentage points.