WASHINGTON — Six months after President Barack Obama ordered the closing of the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, his administration is still slogging through the cases and policies and will need more time to complete interim reports due on Tuesday.
Top Obama administration officials said late Monday that they're still on track to close the prison in January.
They said, however, that one group weighing how to change interrogation policies will need two more months, and another will need another six months to work on the more difficult question of how to try or hold suspected terrorists — including those who may never stand trial.
"We need to go through these questions thoroughly," said a senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity as a matter of policy. "These are hard, complicated, consequential decisions. We want to make sure we make the right decisions."
Critics were skeptical.
Kirk S. Lippold, a vocal proponent of keeping Guantanamo open and the former commander of the U.S.S. Cole, which was attacked by terrorists in 2000, called the administration's assertion that it was still on target for a January closing "ludicrous."
"Without any policy or plans in place we're going to shut down Guantanamo?" he asked. "They're not on track. They did not meet the deadline. They must be behind."
Senior White House advisers said they're making progress.
One official said a task force of 65 people from the CIA, FBI, and Departments of Defense and Justice has been reviewing the case of every one of the 229 suspects now held at Guantanamo Bay.
The panel meets every Wednesday, usually at a secure location that aides wouldn't identify, and tries to decide if a suspect can be released to another country or held for trial either in a U.S. federal court or military commission.
"We are over half way through reviewing the detainees," another senior official said. "We have made substantially more than 50 decisions to transfer (to another country) and a significant number of decisions to prosecute."
The third option would be to hold them without trial. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said that 50 to 100 detainees could end up being deemed to be too dangerous to release or try in civilian or military courts.
Devon Chaffee, a lawyer for Human Rights First, said it's hard to gauge the administration's progress based on the number of detainees reviewed.
"I think the most important thing is that the administration gets the policy right and puts the country back on track with policies that respect the rule of law," she said. "If it takes a little more time, then they should take that time."
Another rights advocate worried, however, that the administration still is working toward sending some suspects to trial in revamped military commissions, or holding them without trial at all.
"The Obama administration must not slip into the same legal swamp that engulfed the Bush administration with its failed Guantanamo policies," said Anthony D. Romero, Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union.
"Any effort to revamp the failed Guantanamo military commissions or enact a law to give any president the power to hold individuals indefinitely and without charge or trial is sure to be challenged in court and it will take years before justice is served. . . . A promise deferred could soon become a promise broken."
While it asked for more time for its full report, the Detention Policy Task Force did issue a preliminary report late Monday that envisions new plans for military trials.
The report noted "in cases where enemy terrorists have violated our criminal laws, we will, where feasible, prosecute them in federal court."
"That said, it is also clear that federal courts have not traditionally been used to try violations of the laws of war, and that they are not always best suited to the task," the report concluded.
The report's authors said the president is supportive of a Senate proposal on how to overhaul the military commissions process, but plans to work with Congress on a "somewhat different approach" that would require several changes to the legislation, including codifying into law a prohibition on the use of statements obtained through "cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment."
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