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Obama to miss Guantanamo deadlines

White House officials acknowledge delays in deciding what to do with the detainees. The president had pledged to close the military prison by January.

July 21, 2009|Greg Miller and David G. Savage

WASHINGTON — Obama administration officials said Monday they would not meet self-imposed deadlines for deciding what to do with scores of detainees too dangerous to release from the prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The delays, involving those who cannot be tried, raise questions about whether the White House can close the prison by January, as President Obama pledged when he took office.

Although officials said the deadline still would be met, a task force studying the issue was expected to deliver its recommendations by Jan. 22 -- exactly one year after Obama issued his executive order to close the prison within a year.

The officials said they had made substantial progress in reviewing the cases of the approximately 240 prisoners at the facility, and had decided that dozens of detainees were eligible for transfer to other countries or were suitable for trial.

But the officials acknowledged that two reports that were supposed to be delivered to the president by Wednesday -- one on how to overhaul the nation's detention policy and another on interrogation policy -- would not be ready.

Officials emphasized the complexity of the issues and their desire to find solutions that would be acceptable to Congress but could withstand a court challenge.

"We want to get this right and not have another multiple years of uncertainty," one senior administration official said in a background briefing with reporters at the White House. The official spoke on condition of anonymity, citing the sensitivity of the deliberations.

Civil liberties groups expressed concern Monday that the White House was planning to preserve the ability to hold some prisoners indefinitely.

"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. "A promise deferred could soon become a promise broken."

Administration officials said they had not retreated from their January deadline to close the facility. "To meet the requirement of the executive order -- that is our goal," one official said.

But the administration has given a six-month extension to the task force examining detention policy. The delay means the recommendations for devising a system for the indefinite detention of those considered too dangerous to release but impossible to try may not be delivered until Jan. 22.

Officials declined to say how many Guantanamo prisoners might fall into the indefinite detention category, but said no decisions on those cases had been reached.

In contrast, a second administration official said that a review team had resolved "substantially more than 50 cases" of detainees who could be transferred overseas, as well as a "significant number" of others who would face trial in U.S. federal courts or before a revamped system of military commissions.

The White House has granted a two-month extension to a separate task force that Obama created to recommend changes to the nation's interrogation policy.

Officials have said that the panel will probably suggest creating teams of expert interrogators -- drawing on personnel from the CIA, FBI and other agencies -- to question senior Al Qaeda members and other high-value suspects.

During the George W. Bush years, Guantanamo became an international symbol for America's harsh handling of Muslim prisoners. But the Obama administration, like its predecessor, has been unable to devise a single set of legal rules for detaining and prosecuting the men held there.

Under military law, the government could hold foreign fighters and suspected terrorists under the rules of war. But the Obama administration's lawyers have been reluctant to follow the lead of Bush by relying on the power of the commander in chief to hold military prisoners indefinitely without charges. The Supreme Court also may have foreclosed that possibility last year when it ruled that Guantanamo prisoners had a right to challenge their detention in federal courts.

Criminal law sharply limits who can be held and under what circumstances. For example, prosecutors would be required to release a suspect if they had no witnesses against him and no other evidence of his guilt that would be admissible in court.

But the Guantanamo prisoners include accused terrorists allegedly involved in attacks on Americans, including the bombing of the warship Cole. In some cases, the only witnesses were either subjected to harsh interrogations or are in prison abroad. None could testify at a trial.

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greg.miller@latimes.com

david.savage@latimes.com

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