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 fulfil a pledge to close the prison by January.
The move would further delay terrorism trials and, coupled with recent comments by US 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, Mr 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 on May 20. But two US officials said today the administration wants a three-month extension.
The delay means that legal action on the detainees’ cases would continue to be frozen.
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 Bush, who pushed Congress to create it, have said the system violated US 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.
The administration has never dismissed the possibility of using the tribunal system to try the suspected al-Qaida, Taliban and other foreign fighters swept up and ultimately held at Guantanamo after the September 11 attacks.
But administration officials have said they hoped to try many in US federal courts, relying on civilian prosecutors instead of on the military law.
Since Mr Obama ordered the prison closed, Republicans have seized on the issue of where the detainees will go – and the new Democratic administration lack of a plan to deal with them.
“Closing Guantanamo is not a good option if no safe alternatives exist,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said in a statement.