- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 27, 2009

President Obama may not be able to meet his stated goal of closing the much-criticized Guantanamo Bay prison by January as his administration runs into daunting legal and logistical hurdles to moving the more than 220 detainees still there.

Senior administration officials acknowledged for the first time Friday that difficulties in completing the lengthy review of detainee files and resolving other thorny questions mean the president’s promised January deadline may slip.

Mr. Obama’s aides have stepped up their work toward closure and the president remains as committed to closing the detention facility at the U.S. Naval Base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, as he was when, as one of his first acts in office, he pledged to shut it down, said the officials, who spoke to the Associated Press on the condition of anonymity in order to more freely discuss the sensitive issue.

They said the White House still was hoping to meet the deadline through a stepped-up effort.

The U.S. military prison in Cuba was created by President George W. Bush after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks as a landing spot for suspected al Qaeda, Taliban and foreign fighters captured in Afghanistan and elsewhere. But it has since become a lightning rod of anti-U.S. criticism around the globe.

Mr. Obama promised soon after taking office - and many times since - to close the prison, arguing that doing so was crucial to restoring the United States’ image in the world and to creating a more effective anti-terror approach.

But eight months after Mr. Obama’s initial pledge and with only four months to go before the January deadline, a number of difficult issues remain unresolved. They include establishing a new set of rules for military trials, finding a location for a new prison to house detainees and finding host countries for those who can be released.

This has prompted top Republicans in Congress to demand that the prison stay open for now, saying it is too dangerous to rush the closure. Even Democrats defied the president, saying they needed more information about Mr. Obama’s plan before supporting it. Congress is for now denying Mr. Obama funds to shut down Guantanamo.

“Americans and a bipartisan majority in Congress will continue to reject any effort to close Guantanamo until there is a plan that keeps Americans as safe or safer than keeping detainees in the secure detention center,” Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said Saturday.

After Mr. Obama’s promise, administration officials and lawyers began to review the files on each detainee. At issue: which prisoners can be tried, and whether to do so in military or civilian courts; which can be released to other nations; and - the hardest question - which prisoners are so dangerous or have cases so compromised that they must be held indefinitely.

A major complaint surfaced immediately - that the Bush administration had not established a consolidated repository of intelligence and evidence on each prisoner. It took longer than expected to build such a database, the officials said, because information was scattered throughout agencies and inconsistent.

The files have now been completed, and prosecutors have concluded their initial review of the detainees and recommended to the Justice Department an unspecified number who appear eligible for prosecution, the officials told the AP. The Justice Department and the Pentagon now will work together to determine which prisoners should be tried in military courts and which in civilian ones, the officials said.

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