WASHINGTON – The Obama administration may revamp and restart the Bush-era military trial system for suspected terrorists as it struggles to determine the fate of detainees held at Guantanamo Bay and fulfill a pledge to close the prison by January.
The move would further delay terrorism trials and, coupled with recent comments by U.S. military and legal officials, amounts to a public admission by President Barack Obama’s team that delivering on that promise is easier said than done.
Almost immediately after taking office, Obama suspended the tribunal system and ordered a 120-day review of the cases against the 241 men being held at the Navy prison in Cuba. That review was supposed to end May 20. But two U.S. officials said Saturday the administration wants a three-month extension.
The delay means that legal action on the detainees’ cases would continue to be frozen. Neither of the U.S. officials were authorized to discuss the delay publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
One official said the Obama administration planned to use the extra time to ask Congress to tweak the existing military tribunals system that was created for the detainees. Critics of former President George W. Bush, who pushed Congress to create it, have said the system violated U.S. law because it limits the detainees’ legal rights.
Now, faced with looming deadlines and few answers for where to transfer the detainees, the Obama administration may keep the tribunal system – with a few changes.
Asked at a Senate hearing last week if the administration would abandon the Guantanamo system, Defense Secretary Robert Gates answered: “Not at all.”
“The commissions are very much still on the table,” Gates said, adding that nine Guantanamo detainees are already being tried in military tribunals.
Gates also alluded to the administration’s likely request for Congress to tweak to law that created the Guantanamo legal system.
“Should there be any changes to the military commission law, if the decision is made to retain the military commissions?” he asked rhetorically.
Attorney General Eric Holder went further at a recent House hearing, saying the military commissions still could be used but “would be different from those that were previously in place.”
Although as many as one-third of the detainees will be released or sent to other nations for trial, Holder said the administration is considering how to prosecute the rest of them.
The potential 90-day delay was first reported in Saturday’s editions of the New York Times.