WASHINGTON — President-elect Barack Obama will sign an executive order in his first week in office that sets in motion the closure of the Guantanamo Bay military prison, the highest-profile symbol of the Bush administration's detention policies, two individuals familiar with Obama's thinking said on Monday.
They declined to say precisely when he'd sign the directive, but they said it could be within hours of his Jan. 20 inauguration.
The order would set out the procedures for shutting the prison at the U.S. Naval base in Cuba, a process that's likely to take a considerable period of time, the two individuals said. Both spoke on the condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to speak publicly.
The process entails determining what to do with the estimated 250 suspected al Qaida and Taliban militants housed at the prison, set up after the 2001 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan.
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The inmates include 15 "high-value" detainees, such as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who's accused in connection with the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Some 60 detainees have been cleared for release, but their governments have refused to accept them. In other instances, governments are refusing to imprison Guantanamo detainees when it is a condition for their repatriation.
In the course of the closure process, the new administration also is likely to address the future of military tribunals — panels of military officers that the Bush administration created to try accused terrorists.
Many legal experts, including in the military's own Judge Advocate General's Corps, have condemned the commissions, charging that their rules, which admit evidence obtained through coercion, violate U.S. civil and military legal principles.
Brooke Anderson, a spokeswoman for the Obama transition team, declined to comment on whether he'd sign an executive order next week to close Guantanamo.
Obama, who taught constitutional law in Chicago before entering politics, pledged during the presidential campaign to shut the facility. He also objected to the use of the military tribunals, but he hasn't indicated how he'd replace them.
"It is more difficult than I think a lot of people realize, and we are going to get it done," he said in an interview with ABC News that aired on Sunday. "But part of the challenge that you have is that you have got a bunch of folks that have been detained, many of whom may be very dangerous, who have not been put on trial or have not gone through some adjudication. And some of the evidence against them may be tainted, even though it's true."
Asked if he'd close the facility within his first 100 days in office, Obama replied: "That is a challenge. I think it's going to take some time. But I don't want to be ambiguous about this. We are going to close Guantanamo and we are going to make sure that the procedures we set up are ones that abide by our Constitution."
Defense Secretary Robert Gates, whom Obama is retaining, ordered the Pentagon last month to begin drawing up plans to shutter Guantanamo in anticipation that one of Obama's first acts would be ordering its closure.
The facility has been central to charges by critics that the Bush administration authorized the use of interrogation procedures that amount to torture under U.S. and international law.
The Senate Armed Service Committee last month blamed senior administration officials, including former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and retired Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, for the use of those techniques.
The Bush administration insists that it's not allowed torture, and says that just a handful of U.S. service personnel were responsible for the abuses of detainees at Guantanamo, the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and at U.S. bases in Afghanistan.
President George W. Bush and some of his senior aides, including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, now support closing the facility.
However, Vice President Dick Cheney, a leading proponent of interrogation techniques such as waterboarding, which creates the sensation of drowning, has said the prison should be kept open.
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