An Obama administration task force set up to develop a plan for the closure of the U.S. detention facility at Guantánamo Bay will miss its first deadline this week—and put off a key report—amid continued divisions over how to resolve one of the president's thorniest policy dilemmas.
The task force, set up on Obama's second day in office, was charged with preparing a report to the president by Tuesday, July 21, outlining a long-term detention plan for detainees captured in counterterrorism operations after Sept. 11. But continued debate within the task force over the legal basis for holding detainees who are not charged with any crimes—and where to house them once they are moved from Guantánamo—has forced the task force to postpone its report by a "few months," a senior administration official told NEWSWEEK.
A separate task-force report on interrogations—also due this week—is being put off as well, said the official, who, like others quoted in this article, asked not to be named talking about private deliberations.
The postponement of the two reports is sure to raise fresh questions about whether Obama will be able to shut down Guantánamo by next January as he pledged immediately after taking office. While publicly saying they remain committed to next January's deadline, officials privately acknowledge that a host of political and diplomatic problems—including the reluctance of foreign countries to accept detainees and fierce opposition from members of Congress to moving them to the United States—has made closing the facility far more daunting than they had anticipated.
Three administration officials familiar with the process said the detention task force, which is jointly run by aides to Attorney General Eric Holder and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, did agree that the Obama administration should continue to claim the right to hold some Guantánamo inmates indefinitely as "combatants" under the "laws of war," without charging them either in criminal courts or in military commissions. That proposal is sure to prove controversial among human-rights groups, which say any such "indefinite detention" violates civil liberties and is virtually indistinguishable from legal claims made by President Bush.
But the officials say that, as much as the concept of indefinite detention is distasteful to the president and his legal advisers, there is simply no alternative for dealing with potentially dozens of detainees whom the administration doesn't want to release because they are thought to be too dangerous, but can't bring to trial for lack of evidence.
But one of the officials insisted the Obama task force will not ultimately endorse the sweeping claims of executive authority made by the Bush administration. The legal basis for detention will rely largely on the narrower 2001 congressional authorization to use military force against the perpetrators of 9/11.
The proposal will also call for periodic review of the status of the detainees by a military panel—with opportunities for detainees to argue that they are no longer dangerous. Yet the task force has not been able to reach a consensus on key issues—among them whether indefinite detention will only apply to detainees currently at Guantánamo or whether new prisoners captured in counterterrorism operations around the world can be similarly held without trial. Even more troublesome is where to imprison future detainees. Administration officials acknowledge they will almost certainly have to be brought to a facility within the United States—most likely a military prison. But recent protests by members of Congress about transferring some current Gitmo detainees to the United States—and amendments already passed by Congress requiring notification of any such moves—has made that option far more difficult than it was only a few months ago.