GUANTANAMO BAY NAVY BASE, Cuba — President Barack Obama's administration struggled with the legacy of Guantanamo in its first full day in office Wednesday, freezing court cases from here to Washington, D.C., while circulating a presidential order that contemplates emptying the prison camps within a year.
All the moves were designed to buy time to study the cases against the 245 or so war-on-terror captives who've been held here for up to seven years — and decide who should be tried and who should be freed.
Under the unsigned draft Executive Order, Guantanamo "shall be closed as soon as practicable, and no later than one year from the date of this order.'' During that time, officials would study the records on each detainee to determine who should be prosecuted and who should be released or sent back to their home countries.
The draft order foresees the possibility that some of the detainees might be resettled in the United States — though only after coordination with Congress for appropriate legislation that would allow their resettlement "in a manner consistent with law and the national security and foreign policy interests of the United States.''
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Obama began making good on his pledge to close the prison camps here even as televisions at this U.S. Navy base were still broadcasting scenes live from Tuesday night's inaugural balls.
Shortly before 9 p.m. Tuesday, Pentagon prosecutors, under orders from the president, sought a 120-day freeze on proceedings against five men accused of plotting the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The motion made clear that prosecutors would seek a similar freeze in "all pending cases" at Guantanamo.
On Wednesday, Army Col. Stephen Hanley ordered the freeze, suspending action in the case until May 20, despite objections from the accused 9/11 conspirators, who argued that they wanted to plead guilty in the case and be sentenced to death.
Meanwhile, the Obama administration on Wednesday won a two-week delay in the habeas corpus petitions of three Guantanamo detainees who had challenged before U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton in Washington the Bush administration's determination that they are "enemy combatants" and can be held indefinitely at Guantanamo.
Under the Bush administration, Justice Department attorneys have argued in favor of holding on to such detainees, but Justice Department attorneys said the Obama administration was "now assessing how it will proceed."
The Bush administration has lost several habeas cases in federal district court after judges have concluded there was little real evidence against the petitioners. The three men in the current cases -- Karim Bostan, an Afghan, Abu Rawda, a Syrian, and Abdul Aziz Naji, an Algerian -- were captured in Pakistan and accused of being affiliated with al Qaida.
Critics of Bush administration detention policy praised the moves, with the executive director of the organization Human Rights First calling the cascading measures "the kind of bold action that is required to repair America's reputation.''
"The Bush Administration's misguided embrace of indefinite detention, torture and unjust military commissions has greatly damaged America's international image, fueled terrorist recruitment and undermined international cooperation in counterterrorism,'' Elissa Massimino said.
The war court freeze frustrated and infuriated two groups that likely agree on nothing else: the five accused 9/11 plotters, and the Sept. 11 victim families flown in by the Pentagon to see them prosecuted. "In the name of God, I would like us to continue with the motion that we have submitted, the five of us, to confess,'' said Mohammed. "We should continue, so we don't go backward.'' Mohammed has bragged about his role in orchestrating the 9/11 attacks, which killed 2,973 people at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and in a Pennsylvania field, where a hijacked plane crashed. "I want it to continue right here, right now. I'll wait 120 days. I've waited eight years. But I want justice,'' said retired Brooklyn firefighter Joseph Holland of Spring Hill, Fla., whose stock broker son Joey was killed in the World Trade Center. Republican House leader John Boehner said he was disappointed at the decision to delay the Guantanamo cases and also signaled potential Republican opposition to the closing of Guantanamo.
"If there is a better solution, we're open to hearing it,'' said Boehner. "But most communities around America don't want dangerous terrorists imported into their neighborhoods, and I can't blame them. As long as it is necessary to protect our national security interests, the terrorist detention facility at Guantanamo Bay should remain open.''
Jonathan S. Landay contributed to this report from Washington.