WASHINGTON — The Obama administration on Monday announced that it will resume using military tribunals to try suspected terrorists held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, but officials said they're not giving up on trials in civilian courts and are still considering their options for trying 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four other accused 9/11 plotters.
President Barack Obama also signed an executive order for the U.S. to continue indefinite detentions of suspects without trial, a move strongly opposed by civil rights groups and some congressional Democrats.
Aides said that Obama remains committed to closing the detention center at Guantanamo Bay.
Senior administration officials defended the president's intention to continue indefinite detentions, which the Bush administration employed heavily and Obama has sustained. The officials told reporters in a conference call that a revised framework in the executive order gives detainees more frequent reviews of their status, with rights to hire a private lawyer of their choosing and the right to make a statement to a review board.
"We have raised the bar" on humane treatment of detainees, said one official, who spoke on condition that his name be withheld under ground rules set by the White House.
Anthony D. Romero, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said Obama has created a "troubling 'new normal'" and that his steps to give detainees more procedural rights are "just window dressing for the reality that today's executive order institutionalizes indefinite detention, which is unlawful, unwise and un-American."
The administration will continue to seek repeal of congressional restrictions on trying terrorism suspects in civilian courts, officials said.
They declined to speak about how Monday's announcements would affect the trial of the accused 9/11 plotters. "We're not here to comment on the future of any particular case," one official said. "We're working through what options there are," one official said. "It's a decision we're going to have to be making in due time."
That lack of clarity and delay in bringing the cases to trial continues to frustrate many of the relatives of those who died in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Jim Riches, a deputy fire chief in New York, whose son died responding to the attacks, said he could support civilian or military trials, but he's fed up with the delay.
"President Obama promised us swift and certain justice in February of 2009," Riches said. "More than two years later, he still hasn't made a decision. I think it's a disgrace and another slap in the face of 9/11 families. Almost 10 years later, we haven't seen justice.
"It's politically explosive," he said. "I thought they wanted to wait until after the election and then they would deal with it. But they didn't."
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas, said Monday that he's glad that Obama and his team have "finally seen the light" on military commissions. But Smith pressed the president to go farther, and "fully abandon the failed policy of trying terrorists in civilian courts."
"Justice for the families of the 9/11 victims has been delayed long enough," Smith said.
Meanwhile, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said that Obama's indefinite detention order "falls far short of core constitutional values" because it doesn't provide for judicial review of cases that go before the government's review board and doesn't guarantee "meaningful assistance of counsel."
Obama said in a statement that the steps will "broaden our ability to bring terrorists to justice, provide oversight for our actions, and ensure the humane treatment of detainees."
Of the detainees who remain at Guantanamo, about three dozen face military commission or civilian trials; 47 face indefinite detention and dozens of others could be sent to other countries.
(Carol Rosenberg of the Miami Herald contributed to this article.)
ON THE WEB
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY