WASHINGTON — Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. said Tuesday that the Obama administration would probably not meet its Jan. 22 deadline for closing the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and that the fate of more than 220 foreign terrorism suspects being held there might remain up in the air for months longer.
"It's going to be difficult" to make the self-imposed deadline, Holder told reporters during a rare question-and-answer session at the Justice Department.
But, he added, the administration is still trying to meet the goal President Obama set on his second day in office and remains committed to shuttering the facility -- whose existence has become a recruiting tool for terrorist organizations around the world -- as soon as possible.
Holder also downplayed one controversial sticking point in the Guantanamo debate, saying the Justice Department and its Bureau of Prisons have proved that the most hardened terrorists can be housed safely in the U.S. His comments came a few days after the House voted to prohibit the transfer of terrorism suspects from Guantanamo to face prosecution in this country.
Many lawmakers say the detainees pose a threat to national security.
The measure, if it becomes law, would complicate the administration's plan to empty the widely criticized prison by early next year.
Some human rights activists said they were less concerned about the actual closing date than about indications that the administration would continue to keep several dozen prisoners in some kind of indefinite detention.
"If you are just going to move people to the United States and hold them without charge here, it will continue to be a source of outrage. We think it's crucial that Guantanamo be closed in a meaningful way," said Joanne Mariner, terrorism and counter-terrorism director at Human Rights Watch.
In the last week, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates also expressed doubts about being able to close Guantanamo by the January deadline.
But Holder said that two Obama-appointed task forces have made substantial progress in determining what to do with 223 men still being held there.
The interagency Guantanamo Review Task Force, which has completed its initial review of all the detainees, recommended transferring "a significant number" to foreign nations, with others brought to the United States to stand trial.
One problem is what to do with as many as 100 detainees, most of them Yemenis, who the administration has said are too dangerous to be released to other countries but who cannot be prosecuted here for lack of admissible evidence.
"I think that, at the end, Guantanamo will be closed," Holder said. "And I think that that is an appropriate thing to do given the fact that it has served -- and continues to serve -- as a recruiting tool for those who intend to do this nation harm, and has served as a wedge between this nation and our allies."
The attorney general acknowledged that he has lobbied some lawmakers to ease their concerns about holding detainees in the U.S.
"What we are going to have to do is come up with a facility here in the U.S. to house people for trial," Holder said, adding that the administration is close to selecting a site.
Holder also provided new details about the investigation of Denver airport shuttle driver Najibullah Zazi and his alleged conspiracy to detonate homemade bombs in the United States.
The attorney general said that unlike most domestic terrorism plots unearthed in recent years, this conspiracy was operational, not merely aspirational, and that potentially scores of people could have been killed. Zazi was arrested Sept. 19.
"There certainly was an Al Qaeda connection" to the plot, Holder said, suggesting that Zazi's ties to the terrorist network went beyond obtaining training in weapons and explosives last year at one of its camps in Pakistan.
"We have a good sense of who these people were, and I can say the investigation is pretty far along, and I think we've got a pretty good handle on who was involved," Holder said.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
From the 1970s until the mid-1990s, the U.S. military facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, housed mostly Cuban and Haitian refugees. In January 2002, the first group of terrorism suspects arrived at the prison there. Here is a look at some of the major developments since then:
March 11: Federal appeals court rules the detainees have no legal rights in the United States.
May 9: Number of detainees housed peaks at 680.
June 28: Supreme Court rules that detainees can challenge their captivity in federal court.
Aug. 24: First military commission begins.
June: Construction begins on a $1-billion, high-security detention facility.
June 29: Supreme Court rules the military commission system violates U.S. and international law and that the Geneva Convention applies to the detainees.