The Obama administration is resuming military trials for terrorism suspects detained at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba — another step back from Obama's 2008 campaign promise to close the prison.
The president also announced Monday that he was setting new review guidelines for the prisoners that he said would "broaden our ability to bring terrorists to justice, provide oversight for our actions, and ensure the humane treatment of detainees" — all signals that the White House does not foresee the facility being closed any time soon.
At the start of his presidency in January 2009, Obama banned filing new military tribunal charges against Guantanamo Bay prisoners, a move praised by human rights organizations, who said the conditions at the facility and the military commissions there were a violation of the Geneva Conventions. But subsequent congressional actions blocked funds for transferring detainees to civilian federal courts, in effect preventing the White House from mothballing the prison.
With 170 detainees still at Guantanamo and more terrorism suspects likely to be captured and sent there, pressure was building for new military prosecutions. "We can expect to see a new round of charges come out real soon, possibly in days or weeks," one administration official said.
Obama left open the possibility that some of the detainees would still be transferred to federal courts, where the proceedings would be more open and the prisoners would receive civilian legal protections.
"I strongly believe that the American system of justice is a key part of our arsenal in the war against Al Qaeda and its affiliates," Obama said. "And we will continue to draw on all aspects of our justice system … to ensure that our security and our values are strengthened."
Administration sources said that the executive order would provide Guantanamo detainees with more periodic reviews and other provisions to evaluate their cases, determine how many are committed to fighting the United States, and help safeguard their rights while in military custody.
Legal groups usually supportive of the president were highly critical Monday.
"With the stroke of a pen," said Tom Parker of Amnesty International, "President Obama extinguished any lingering hope that his administration would return the United States to the rule of law by referring detainee cases from Guantanamo Bay to federal courts rather than the widely discredited military commissions."
Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said "providing more process to Guantanamo detainees is just window dressing for the reality that today's executive order institutionalized indefinite detention, which is unlawful, unwise and un-American."
"Do I think it's going to close anytime soon? No," said Mason Clutter, policy counsel for the Constitution Project, a bipartisan group that has called for shutting the prison. "Is that the administration's fault? Partly. But Congress is to blame here too. They've pretty much tied his hands in fulfilling that promise."
Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the senior Republican member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he welcomed Obama's decision to start bringing new charges against Guantanamo Bay inmates. But he said he was "extremely disappointed" over the administration's continued desire to try some of them in federal courts.
"The administration still doesn't get it and continues to ignore the will of Congress and the American people," Grassley said. "It's time to end this unwise policy and keep 'enemy combatants' off U.S. soil once and for all."
Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. said Monday that the congressional obstacles had been "unwisely sought" and added that "we oppose those restrictions, and will continue to seek their repeal."
Holder had decided in 2009 to move high-ranking Al Qaeda operative Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and four other suspects in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks from Guantanamo Bay to New York City for trial. That sparked widespread outrage among Republicans and Democrats. It damaged momentum for closing the prison, and forced the administration to reconsider where to try the high-value terrorism detainees. No decision has been announced on where Mohammed will be tried.
Holder said Monday that for those behind bars in Guantanamo Bay, "we will continue to work, along with the Department of Defense, to ensure that justice is done as swiftly as possible."
And yet last week, in testimony before a House subcommittee, he reiterated the president's desire to close the prison. "Guantanamo serves as a recruiting tool for Al Qaeda," he said. "All of the intelligence tells us that."
Lisa Mascaro in the Washington bureau contributed to this report