President Obama on Monday lifted the ban he imposed two years ago on military trials for detainees at the Guantanamo Bay prison, ending his bid to move most terrorism trials to civilian courts and pushing his already busted deadline for shuttering the island prison indefinitely forward.
The reversal came as Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates visited Afghanistan and indicated that he was willing to keep a presence of U.S. forces in the war-torn country beyond the Obama administration’s 2014 pullout goal, highlighting again the difficulty the president has had moving from the policies of President George W. Bush.
Mr. Obama announced the Guantanamo decision in an executive order that also sets forth a periodic review process for detainees who have not been charged or convicted but are still considered threats to the U.S.
White House aides stressed that Mr. Obama remains committed to closing the prison, which he has described as a key recruiting tool for terrorist groups, and pursuing some cases in civilian courts. Mr. Obama vowed during the campaign to close the prison by the end of 2009, his first year in office.
“Today, I am announcing several steps that broaden our ability to bring terrorists to justice, provide oversight for our actions, and ensure the humane treatment of detainees,” Mr. Obama said in a statement accompanying the order. “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, and we will continue to draw on all aspects of our justice system — including Article III Courts — to ensure that our security and our values are strengthened.”
Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, California Republican and chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, praised the move but said he was disappointed that the White House did not work with Congress on this decision.
“It’s baffling to me that the White House, which prides itself on operating differently than its predecessor, would repeat the same mistakes by refusing to work with Congress to create a comprehensive plan for the long-term detention and prosecution of detainees at Guantanamo Bay,” he said in a statement.
Hina Shamsi, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s national security program, also criticized the decision.
“This is a major step backwards and in the wrong direction because the best and most effective way to get out of the Guantanamo morass is to use the criminal justice system,” she said.
When Mr. Obama took office in 2009, 242 detainees were at U.S. Naval Base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Since then, the administration has transferred 67 detainees to other countries. State Department cables made public by WikiLeaks reveal that U.S. diplomats have had problems persuading foreign governments in many cases to take back some of the detainees.
The president suspended additional military cases in January 2009, when he signed an executive order calling for the closure of the prison within one year. That goal since has met strong bipartisan opposition on Capitol Hill.
In December, Congress passed a Defense Authorization Bill that prohibited the Pentagon from sending detainees from Guantanamo to the United States, effectively tying the president’s hands on the use of civilian trials for suspected terrorists.
The U.S. has convicted and sentenced six detainees, including Ali Hamza al-Bahlul, Osama bin Laden’s media specialist who told jurors he had volunteered to be the 20th Sept. 11 hijacker. He is serving a life sentence at Guantanamo.
Meanwhile, the first Guantanamo detainee tried in civilian court — in New York — was convicted in November on just one of more than 280 charges that he took part in the al Qaeda bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa. That case ignited strident opposition to any further such trials.
Rep. Adam Smith of Washington state, the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, praised Mr. Obama’s decision.
“Without a process that ensures timely trials for those accused of a crime, the courts could ultimately order that certain detainees be released,” he said. “This is unacceptable and the executive order announced today helps clear the way to charge and try our enemies.”
Not all supporters of the Guantanamo prison were pleased with the decision.
Debra Burlingame, co-founder of 9/11 Families for a Safe and Strong America and a board member of Keep America Safe, said she was upset at the White House after participating in a conference call with families of the victims of 9/11.
“What we heard today is that despite the fact that Congress has closed every loophole for trying Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and his co-conspirators in Article III courts, the White House is persistent in defying the will of the American people and plans to do it anyway,” she said.
The first Guantanamo trial likely to proceed under the new order would involve Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, the alleged mastermind of the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole. Al-Nashiri, a Saudi of Yemeni descent, has been imprisoned at Guantanamo since 2006.
In Kabul, Mr. Gates said the United States is beginning to decide what its responsibilities will be in Afghanistan after U.S. combat troops leave, but he ruled out permanent military bases in the strategically important country.
President Hamid Karzai wants U.S. military support even as he heavily criticizes the current U.S.-led military campaign for being too quick on the trigger. Nine Afghan boys died in an accidental airstrike last week, reopening a raw issue.
Mr. Gates said the U.S. is interested in keeping a military presence in this former al Qaeda haven beyond the planned end of combat in three years. At a news conference with Mr. Karzai, Mr. Gates said a team of U.S. officials would arrive here next week to begin negotiations over a new compact for U.S.-Afghan security relations after 2014, when all international combat forces are supposed to be gone. U.S. forces have been in Afghanistan since 2001, and Mr. Obama has repeatedly said the war is not open-ended.
The Pentagon chief also said the U.S. and its allies will be “well positioned” to begin withdrawing forces in July of this year, although he gave no specifics. The withdrawal would continue through 2014, with Afghan forces gradually taking over the fight against the Taliban-led insurgency.
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.