Friday, February 6, 2009

The U.S. government has dropped charges for now against the Saudi man it accuses of masterminding the 2000 suicide bombing of the USS Cole, which killed 17 American sailors as the ship sat at the dock in Yemen.

Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said Susan Crawford, the convening authority for the military tribunals at Guantanamo Bay, made the decision to withdraw charges against Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri.

However, Mr. Morrell said Thursday night that the dismissal was made “without prejudice,” meaning the U.S. government may continue to prosecute him at a later date.

“Should the Obama administration choose to restart the administration’s process or choose an alternative means to adjudicate his case, they have that option,” Mr. Morrell said.

Mr. Morrell said al-Nashiri will not be set free, in the U.S. or elsewhere, any time soon. For now, he and 243 other detainees at the Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba will be staying put as a special Cabinet-level review team determines whether to charge the inmates in federal court, send them to foreign courts, release them, or deal with them through some other process.

The White House didn’t return messages seeking comment, and President Obama didn’t respond to a question a reporter called to him about dismissing the charges as he left the press cabin aboard Air Force One on Thursday night.

However, the White House did announce Mr. Obama will meet Friday afternoon with family members of victims of the Sept. 11 and Cole attacks.

“The president wants to talk with these families about resolving the issues involved with closing Guantanamo Bay while keeping the safety and security of the American people as his top priority,” the White House said in a statement announcing the meeting.

On Inauguration Day, Mr. Obama instructed the Defense Department to request 120-day delays in the trials, and the next day judges began to halt the trials.

On Jan. 22, two days after his inauguration, Mr. Obama signed three executive orders and one memorandum directing his administration to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility and to conduct a review of all terrorist suspect trials.

The al-Nashiri trial was the last one still ongoing Thursday night because Col. James L. Pohl, the chief judge of the Guantanamo Bay War Crimes court, refused to abide by the executive orders.

Peter Gadiel, whose son died in the Sept. 11 attacks and who runs 9/11 Families for a Secure America, will attend the Friday meeting. He said he expected about 30 family members of victims to be there.

He said if Mr. Obama does close the detention facility and have trials in U.S. courts, some terrorists will go free and, he predicted, take part in more terrorist plots.

“When they commit terrorist acts, the blood of the victims will be on his hands,” Mr. Gadiel said of Mr. Obama.

Retired Cdr. Kirk Lippold, who was the Cole’s captain at the time of the attack, said the Obama administration’s decision “disregarded the legitimacy of the Military Commissions process” and was demeaning to U.S. service members and their families.

“It appears that the Obama Administration, without consideration for its immediate impact or long-term effects, will use a legal maneuver to prevent these detainees from being held accountable for their heinous acts. The families of the USS Cole sailors and all military families have waited too long for justice to be served,” he said in a statement. “The president must consider the impact of his policy decisions on the military and their families who bear the burden of their sacrifice to protect our nation. To do any less demeans their service and sacrifice.

Al-Nashiri was one of three “high-value” al Qaeda suspects in custody that outgoing CIA Director Michael V. Hayden said last year had been “waterboarded” in 2002 and 2003 in CIA secret prisons.

At his confirmation hearing Thursday, Mr. Obama’s nominee to head the CIA, Leon Panetta, said that he considered waterboarding to be torture. Al-Nashiri has said that he confessed to certain charges because he was tortured.

Mr. Panetta also told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that some suspects may be detained for a long period without access to an open trial.

“There probably has to develop some kind of process that allows for some kind of reporting to the federal courts so that there is an ongoing system of reporting why they are being incarcerated and why they are being held so that they just aren’t, you know, put away without any resort to our justice system. But I think there are going to be a group of prisoners that, very frankly, are going to have to be held in detainment for a long time,” Mr. Panetta said.

Jon Ward contributed to this report.

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