The Obama administration moved Thursday to confront growing controversy over its efforts to alter Bush-era terror policies, inviting victims of al Qaida attacks to meet with the president at the White House on Friday even as it withdrew charges against an alleged al Qaida plotter held at Guantanamo.
The decision to withdraw accusations against Abd el Rahim al Nashiri, a Saudi Arabian who faced the death penalty for allegedly helping to organize the October 2000 suicide bombing of the USS Cole, ended a standoff between Obama and a military judge at Guantanamo who'd rejected the president's request for a 120-day delay in Nashiri's case.
Army Col. James Pohl refused last week to cancel Nashiri's arraignment, which had been set for Monday, saying that a delay would not be "in the interest of justice." With the charges withdrawn, no arraignment is necessary.
The Pentagon disclosed the dismissal late Thursday, shortly after the White House confirmed what is expected to be an emotional meeting between Obama and the families and friends of Americans killed by al Qaida.
A White House statement said Obama "wants to talk with these families about resolving the issues involved with closing Guantanamo Bay — while keeping the safety and security of the American people as his top priority."
Closing Guantanamo and ordering a review to determine which, if any, of the prisoners held there can be tried for their alleged crimes was among the first actions Obama took as president, and it may be his most politically difficult.
Among those scheduled to meet with the president is the former commander of the Cole, retired Navy Cmdr. Kirk Lippold, who's been sharply critical of Obama for ordering Guantanamo closed and a delay in the prosecutions of alleged terrorists held there. Seventeen U.S. sailors were killed in the attack on the Cole.
''We shouldn't make policy decisions based on human rights and legal advocacy groups,'' Lippold said then.
Thursday, Lippold was more conciliatory, but still critical of the uncertainty surrounding Guantanamo. He spoke before the Nashiri dismissal had been announced.
"I'm going to listen,'' he said, adding, "The families have already been through enough. Don't put the families through even more of this agony.''
After the Nashiri announcement, however, the group Military Families United issued a statement in Lippold's name in which he again slammed Obama. "It appears that the Obama Administration, without consideration for its immediate impact or long-term effects, will use a legal maneuver to prevent these detainees from receiving due process and being held accountable for their heinous acts," the statement said.
Lippold is a senior military fellow at Military Families United, which claims a 60,000 membership and has been circulating a pledge for members of Congress to sign that rejects relocating Guantanamo prisoners to their districts.
Also invited to the White House is retired New York Fire Chief Jim Riches, whose son was killed at the World Trade Center.
Riches last month traveled to Guantanamo to watch a war court hearing of accused 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed and four alleged co-conspirators and declared himself satisfied with the military commissions that President Bush set up. A military judge granted the president's request for a 120-day delay in the proceedings, however.
"My concern is these guys killed my son and I'd like to see justice served on them,'' Riches said Thursday. "I'd like to see Guantanamo stay open but my main concern is that we get the justice we deserve.''
He also described the 15 family members meeting with Obama as spanning the political spectrum, including "the very liberal that are against torture and everything else.''
The chief said the issue was inclusion, and that victim families wanted a say in what kind of prosecutions the government would pursue.
"It shows that he's reaching out to the people,'' he said. "At least we'll get to voice our opinion.''
There was little information about how the decision was reached to dismiss the charges against Nashiri or whether Obama himself had been involved in making it.
A Pentagon spokesman, Navy Cmdr. Jeffrey Gordon made the announcement, saying only that Susan J. Crawford, the so-called convening authority for military commissions, had dismissed the charges ''without prejudice' and that "Nashiri may be charged at a later date.'' He declined to elaborate.
Nashiri's case presents especially difficult problems for the Obama administration because he is one of three detainees held at Guantanamo that the CIA has admitted were subjected to waterboarding while in secret detention. Obama's attorney general, Eric Holder, told Congress during his confirmation hearing that he belives waterboarding is torture, something that is illegal under U.S. and international law.
Crawford, a Republican appointee, was assigned by the Bush administration to oversee the special war court created to stage the first war crimes tribunals since World War II.
Shortly after his inauguration, Obama instructed Defense Secretary Robert Gates to order prosecutors at Guantanamo to request 120-day stay in the trials, to give his administration time to decide the best way to prosecute accused terrorists and Pohl's refusal to go along had stunned the administration.
Obama has said he prefers civilian trials or regular military courts martial for accused al Qaida conspirators, in place of the special military commissions favored by the Bush administration.