US Attorney General Eric Holder said yesterday that it would be tough to meet the fast-approaching January deadline to close the US military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, that houses terrorism suspects.
President Obama ordered the controversial detention camp closed on his second day in office and gave administration officials a year to do it, but they have since run into numerous legal, political and diplomatic hurdles.
“It’s going to be difficult for us to make the January 22 deadline,” Holder told reporters, quickly adding that they would still try to meet the goal.
There are 223 detainees still at the prison opened after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States to house terrorism suspects. It has been criticized around the globe because of harsh interrogations conducted there and some say militant groups like al Qaeda use it as a rallying cry.
Holder and other administration officials have stressed that ultimately the prison would be closed despite opposition by some Republicans who contend that the facility is already set up to put detainees on trial and imprison them.
“I think that at the end Guantanamo will be closed and I think that is an appropriate thing to do given the fact that it has served and continues to serve as a recruiting tool for those who intend to do this nation harm,” Holder said.
Many of the detainees have been cleared of wrongdoing and will be transferred to other countries willing to take them. Holder said prosecutors in up to five different offices were evaluating whether to try the others in US criminal courts.
Some could instead be tried in military tribunals.
Holder also confirmed that the administration was close to selecting a site to house the detainees on US soil and acknowledged that he and other administration officials needed to do more to convince Congress to fund that effort.
On several occasions, both Republicans and Obama’s fellow Democrats in the US Congress have blocked funding the administration’s efforts to close the Guantanamo prison, demanding that a detailed plan first be shared with lawmakers.
Republicans argue against closing the prison
And some Republicans have argued against closing the prison because there could be security risks by housing the terrorism suspects in US prisons, an argument that Holder rejected.
He said he needs to talk to members of Congress about their concerns. “I’ve had conversations with people on the Hill and I’m sure I’ll continue to do that,” he said.
Separately, Holder said that an investigation into the Central Intelligence Agency’s destruction in 2005 of videos of interrogations of terrorism suspects Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri was nearing an end.
And he also defended his decision to have the prosecutor looking into that case also examine whether CIA officers or contractors should be charged for harsh interrogations of terrorism suspects that went beyond approved guidelines.
Holder was criticized by seven former CIA directors for reopening the investigation, arguing that it would hamper intelligence operations.
“I do not think that it will have a negative impact on the performance of their duties,” Holder said.