Tuesday, July 21, 2009

President Obama on Monday extended by six months a task force charged with determining how terrorism suspects should be interrogated, held in custody or handed over to other countries, putting in jeopardy his promise to close the military detention facility at the U.S. Naval Base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, by January.

The move came on the same day the president pushed back the release of a congressionally mandated report on the nation’s economic conditions, and the White House began to extend a self-imposed deadline for overhauling the nation’s health care system.

Pushing back the deadline on how to handle 229 Gitmo detainees, among them five suspects in the Sept. 11 attacks, including accused mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, illustrates just how complicated it is to solve the campaign issue that Mr. Obama this month called “one of the biggest challenges of my administration.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, was blunt in his criticism over the delay.

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“Bipartisan majorities of both houses and the American people oppose closing Guantanamo without a plan, and several important questions remain unanswered. But it became increasingly clear over time that the administration announced its intent to close the facility before it actually had a plan,” he said.

Six months after Mr. Obama signed the closure order, fewer than 20 of about 245 inmates have been transferred out of the U.S. military base in Cuba.

The White House put a positive spin on the delay, although none of the “senior administration officials” who briefed reporters Monday night agreed to be named.

“The goal in six months is to move through the considerations, file by file, of each of the detainees at Guantanamo, move them to disposition and close the facility,” one official said.

The officials used that word “goal” several times, seeming to redefine the firm timetable set by the president to close the facility by Jan. 22. “Well, that is our goal; that’s what we’re working towards, is meeting the date set forth,” one official said.

Senior officials said the administration is no closer to determining what to do with detainees that cannot be charged or released. “There, there may be a category of detainees who for a number of reasons can’t be prosecuted, but whom we believe that violate the laws of war and pose a threat to the United States. And decisions with respect to any individual detainee with respect to that kind of longer-term detention [have] not been made at this point,” one official said.

The Department of Justice sought to differentiate the review of detainees from the review of detainee policy. “The Detention Policy Task Force and the Special Task Force on Interrogation and Transfer Policies are distinct from the interagency Guantanamo Review Task Force,” Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd wrote in a press release, although he grew testy explaining exactly how detainee evaluation can proceed without having in place a detention policy.

A Department of Defense official, though, said the three task forces are not at all connected and are working on separate tracks. But the official acknowledged that even so, “the delay doesn’t bode well.”

Military lawyers at Guantanamo are prepared to go to trial with at least 66 terrorism suspects now held in extrajudicial detention on the U.S. Navy base, but Mr. Obama’s executive order two days after taking office has tied their hands, suspending all proceedings pending a detainee review that nearly seven months later is half-finished.

Proceedings last week for the five Sept. 11 suspects were mired in legalistic wrangling.

Still, the senior administration officials who briefed reporters pushed the blame back toward former President George W. Bush. “The status quo, incidentally, is not acceptable. Seven years, three prosecutions, endless litigation — that’s not what — that’s not the swift and certain justice that [Mr. Obama is] interested in making sure that we have.”

The detention facility was established after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, and has drawn international criticism for holding prisoners indefinitely, many without charge. Mr. Bush, like Mr. Obama, expressed his desire to close the facility, but both presidents have struggled with “high-value detainees” who can be neither charged nor released.

While the task force developing a new policy on terrorism detainees missed its Tuesday deadline for offering a full list of recommendations, it did issue an interim report that provided an overview of the options, including prosecution in U.S. civilian courts and by military commission or the transfer of suspects to other countries.

Congress, meanwhile, is mulling a set of new guidelines for military commissions, which has delayed court proceedings at Guantanamo. Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, said the United States should move forward with the tribunals, but he also urges the closure of Guantanamo.

But none of the detainees will move to the United States: Congress has approved legislation that prevents them from being released in the U.S. through Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year. In May, Congress demanded a detailed plan on closing Guantanamo before lawmakers would grant him the necessary funds to do it, and denied an Obama request for $80 million to do so.

Late Monday, with only a select group of reporters invited, the White House deployed senior administration officials to sell the new delay. “We are over halfway through reviewing the detainees that are at Guantanamo,” an official said.

That still leaves more than 100 detainees. More than 50 suspects have been cleared for transfer to other countries. A senior administration official has said the Justice Department is considering prosecuting about 30 others in federal courts, and another 30 or so could face trial by military commissions. A final group will be held indefinitely without charge, subject to occasional judicial review, the administration has said.

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