US President Barack Obama has lifted a ban on new military trials for Guantanamo Bay terrorism suspects, apparently conceding that the camp he promised to close will not be emptied any time soon.
Mr Obama also issued new guidelines to ensure humane and lawful treatment of suspects deemed too dangerous to release, but officials insisted he was still determined to shut the facility in Cuba.
They said the president still maintained that some suspects could be tried in federal courts, despite fierce opposition and blocking tactics from a bi-partisan front in Congress.
‘I am announcing several steps that broaden our ability to bring terrorists to justice, provide oversight for our actions and ensure the humane treatment of detainees,’ Obama said in a statement.
The orders represented the president's latest bid to navigate the hideously complicated thicket of legal questions left over from the previous Bush administration's ‘war on terror’ policies.
He instructed US defence secretary Robert Gates to issue an order rescinding the suspension of new trials that he announced within hours of taking power in January 2009, along with a vow to shutter the Guantanamo Bay camp in a year.
Mr Obama opposed the previous Bush administration's plan for military tribunals while still a senator, and in 2009 said he did not oppose the system per se, but believed it lacked a solid legal grounding.
A senior official argued that Mr Obama's reforms, including on the use of evidence garnered through ‘cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment,’ made the military commissions ‘a sustainable process.’
Guantanamo Bay still holds 172 prisoners, including key suspects from the 11 September attacks and other strikes against the United States, as well as prisoners scooped up from the battlefields of Afghanistan.
But senior aides argued privately that the use of military commissions did not mean the president was giving up hope of using federal courts for some trials.
‘We've always had the position and continue to have it that it's essential that we have all the tools in our arsenal to fight this,’ an official said.
‘(Civil) prosecutions have been frequent over the years and have been quite successful.’
New military trials of Guantanamo Bay detainees could take months or years, and in the absence of any viable plan to move them elsewhere, the move seemed to signal the camp would remain open for some time.
But officials insist Mr Obama's 'bedrock aims' remain firm.
‘The president does remain committed to closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay, based on the judgment of our military commanders and our national security team that it hinders our security in the long run,’ one official said.
New procedures for detainees
Mr Obama also unveiled new procedures on how to treat detainees deemed too dangerous to free or impossible to convict due to tainted evidence and who may remain incarcerated indefinitely.
In an executive order, he ruled that detainees would have the right to a periodic review of the reasons for their continued detention.
If a detainee is deemed to no longer pose a threat to the United States, US government agencies will seek to identify a suitable transfer location - but no detainees will be released on US soil.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton meanwhile said the administration would ask the Senate to back an addition to the 1949 Geneva Conventions on standards of ‘fair treatment and fair trial.’
The administration also pledged to adhere to another protocol on ‘humane treatment and fair trial safeguards’ for war prisoners.
Mr Obama's order got a mixed response on Capitol Hill.
Patrick Leahy, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, slammed the approach as falling ‘far short of core constitutional values’ in offering judicial review or guaranteeing detainees meaningful representation by counsel.
But Republican congressman Peter King, an outspoken voice on security issues, commended the administration.
‘The bottom line is that it affirms the Bush administration policy that our government has the right to detain dangerous terrorists until the cessation of hostilities,’ he said.