WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama reversed course yesterday and ordered a resumption of military trials for terror suspects at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, making his once-ironclad promise to close the isolated prison look even more distant.
Guantánamo has been a major political and national security headache for the president since he took office promising to close the prison within a year, a deadline that came and went without him ever setting a new one.
Obama made the change with clear reluctance, bowing to the reality that Congress' vehement opposition to trying detainees on U.S. soil leaves them nowhere else to go. The president emphasized his preference for trials in federal civilian courts, and his administration blamed congressional meddling for closing off that avenue.
"I strongly believe that the American system of justice is a key part of our arsenal in the war against al-Qaida and its affiliates, and we will continue to draw on all aspects of our justice system - including [federal] courts - to ensure that our security and our values are strengthened," Obama said in a statement.
The first Guantánamo trial likely to proceed under Obama's new order would involve Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, the alleged mastermind of the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole. Al-Nashiri, a Saudi of Yemeni descent, has been imprisoned at Guantánamo since 2006.
Defense officials have said that of the around 170 detainees at Guantánamo, about 80 are expected to face trial by military commission.
Yesterday, the White House reiterated that the administration remained committed to eventually closing Guantánamo - which is on a U.S. Navy base - and that yesterday's actions were in pursuit of that goal. But the outcome Obama wants seemed even more distant.
Critics of the military commission system, which was established specifically to deal with the detainees at Guantánamo, contend that suspects are not given some of the most basic protections afforded people prosecuted in American courts and that that serves as a recruitment tool for terrorists.
Obama's administration has enacted some changes to the military commission system while aiming to close down Guantánamo.
More than two dozen detainees have been charged there, but the charges against a number of them were dismissed in the wake of Obama's order in January 2009 to halt the commission process.
Another case is that of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the professed mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, who had been slotted for trial in New York before Obama bowed to political resistance and blocked the Justice Department's plans. With the military tribunals set to restart, it's likely Mohammed will be put back in that system to face trial alongside other admitted 9/11 conspirators.