WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama lifted a two-year freeze on new military trials at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba and suggested on Monday Congress was hurting national security by blocking his attempts to move some trials into U.S. civilian courts.
In an apparent acknowledgment that the Guantanamo detention camp won’t be shut down any time soon, Obama also outlined procedures for reviews to be held at least every four years for prisoners held indefinitely without charge or trial.
Obama suspended new trials at the Guantanamo tribunals, which had been heavily criticized as unfair, when he announced his review of detainee policy in early 2009 and vowed just after becoming president that he would close the camp.
He had tried, and failed, to overcome objections by Republicans and some of his fellow Democrats in Congress to transferring some of the detainees to U.S. prisons and trying Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, mastermind of the September 11 attacks, and others in federal courts.
The administration has also struggled to convince other countries to accept detainees.
Obama said on Monday he still wanted some detainees — all terrorism suspects — to face civilian trials, and resistance to doing so undermined U.S. counter-terrorism efforts.
“I strongly believe that the American system of justice is a key part of our arsenal in the war against al Qaeda and its affiliates, and we will continue to draw on all aspects of our justice system — including Article III courts (U.S. federal courts) — to ensure that our security and our values are strengthened,” Obama said in a statement.
Obama also issued an executive order on Monday establishing a process to continue to hold some Guantanamo detainees who have been neither charged, convicted nor designated for transfer but who are deemed to pose a threat to U.S. security.
He ordered periodic reviews of the determination that some detainees were so dangerous they must be held without charge, with a review for each coming as quickly as possible, but no later than one year from the order.
The first round of new charges against detainees could come within days or weeks, a senior administration official said.
Administration officials said they still wanted eventually to close the prison, which they have called a recruiting tool for anti-American militants that made it hard to negotiate with some allies to take in detainees cleared of any wrongdoing.
Officials said on Monday the camp system had already been improved by measures including banning the use of statements taken as a result of cruel treatment and a better system for handling classified information.
Rights activists said they were disappointed.
“The best way to get America out of the Guantanamo morass is to use the most reliable tool we have — our criminal justice system,” Hina Shamsi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Security Project, told Reuters.
“Instead, the Obama administration has chosen to institutionalize unlawful, indefinite detentions and to revive illegitimate military commissions, which will do nothing to remove the stain on America’s reputation that Guantanamo represents.”
There are still 172 detainees at Guantanamo and about three dozen were set for prosecution in either U.S. criminal courts or military commissions. There were 242 when Obama took office. Many have been held there for more than nine years.
“The president’s ongoing commitment to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay holds,” a senior administration official said. He provided no timeframe for doing so, but pointed to actions including transferring 67 prisoners away from the camp and reforming the tribunals there.
“We’ve done a lot of legwork” (toward closing), he said.
The White House blasted some members of Congress who it said had sought to undermine efforts by the Departments of Justice and Defense to bring Guantanamo defendants to justice, pointing particularly to restrictions enacted in December on prosecuting detainees in federal courts.
Congressional responses to Monday’s announcement were mostly along party lines, with Democrats supporting Obama’s actions and Republicans criticizing him for failing to work with Congress to come up with a long-term plan for holding detainees.
Additional reporting by Jane Sutton in Miami, and Caren Bohan, Jeff Mason and Phil Stewart in Washington; Editing by Todd Eastham