Gitmo Woes

White House officials last week tried to downplay their decision to postpone by six months a key report on what to do with Guantánamo detainees when the facility is shut down. But the delay reflects the daunting political obstacles facing President Obama as he struggles to meet his pledge to close the prison by January. Only a few weeks ago, the White House had considered a grand rollout of its Gitmo plans with a joint appearance on Capitol Hill by Attorney General Eric Holder Jr., Defense Secretary Robert Gates and CENTCOM Cmdr. David Petraeus. But the president's aides concluded that a briefing would likely backfire, diverting attention from health care and giving Republicans fresh ammunition. "There was no good reason to put it out there and have it attract fire," says a senior administration official who asked not to be identified talking about the internal deliberations. The White House announced last week's report delay in a late-afternoon press briefing that was embargoed until 9 p.m.—late enough to keep the disclosure off the network news and the cable talk shows with the highest ratings.

White House aides insist they are still "on track" to meet Obama's deadline. But Democrats are growing skeptical. "I don't think they know what to do," complains Rep. Jim Moran of Virginia, who backs shutting Gitmo. A Justice Department–run task force is methodically reviewing files, trying to determine which detainees should be tried either in federal court or before military commissions, and which ones transferred back to their home countries. One top administration official said more than 50 of the 229 Gitmo detainees have been cleared for transfer abroad. But the State Department has found few countries willing to take them, and Defense Intelligence Agency officials have raised concerns about some of those who have been cleared, according to another administration official. One example: Ahmed Zuhair, who was sent back to Saudi Arabia last month despite being implicated in the 1995 murder of a U.S. official in Bosnia. A Justice official says prosecutors "looked incredibly hard" at indicting Zuhair but had insufficient evidence. "It was a hard call," the official says.