WASHINGTON — A Justice Department-led task force has concluded that nearly 50 detainees at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, should be held indefinitely without trial under the laws of war, according to Obama administration officials.
The task force's findings represent the first time that the Obama administration has clarified how many detainees it considers too dangerous to release but unprosecutable because officials fear trials could compromise intelligence-gathering and because detainees could challenge evidence obtained through coercion.
Human rights advocates have bemoaned the administration's failure to fulfill President Obama's promise last January to close the Guantanamo Bay facility within a year as well as its reliance on indefinite detention, a mechanism devised during George W. Bush's administration that they deem unconstitutional.
"There is no statutory regime in America that allows us to hold people without charge or trial indefinitely," said Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union.
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The efforts of the task force, which this week completed its case-by-case review of the 196 detainees still being held at Guantanamo, allows the Obama administration to claim at least a small measure of progress toward closing the facility.
"We're still moving forward and in a much more deliberate and less haphazard manner than was the case before," said an administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the recommendations have not been made public. "All policies encounter reality, and it's painful, but this one holds up better than most."
The task force has recommended that Guantanamo detainees be divided into three main groups: about 35 who should be prosecuted in federal or military courts; at least 110 who can be released, either immediately or eventually; and the nearly 50 who must be detained without trial.
Administration officials argue that detaining terrorism suspects under Congress' authorization of the use of force against al-Qaida and the Taliban is legal and that each detainee has the right to challenge his incarceration in habeas corpus proceedings in federal court.
The group of at least 110 detainees cleared for release includes two categories. The task force deemed approximately 80 detainees, including about 30 Yemenis, eligible for immediate repatriation or resettlement in a third country. Roughly 30 other Yemenis were placed in a category of their own, with their release contingent upon dramatically stabilized conditions in their home country, where the government has been battling a branch of al-Qaida and fighting a civil war.
"The task force recommendations are based on all of the known information about each detainee, but there are variables that could change a detainee's status, such as being ordered released by the courts or a changed security situation in a proposed transfer state," an administration official said.