With little hope for meeting President Obama's deadline for closing the terrorist prison at Guantanamo Bay, a new message is emerging from the administration: Disregard our timetable.
“We're not focused on whether or not the deadline will or won't be met on a particular day,” said White House press secretary Robert Gibbs. “We're focused on ensuring that the facility is closed, and doing that has to be done between now and the 22nd of January to make the most progress that we can that's possible.”
Obama two days into office issued executive orders closing the prison in a year and ordering a review of terrorism detainee policies. But the complexities of transferring and prosecuting prisoners are expected to force the administration to miss the one-year mark to shutter the prison.
Greg Craig, the White House counsel who took a lead role on the Guantanamo Bay review, is widely expected to leave his job soon under pressure — a prospect that Gibbs downplayed but did not deny.
“Greg Craig is in the president's office every day as part of a small group of senior advisers that meet with him daily,” Gibbs said.
Still, missing the deadline is not likely to hurt Obama politically. Fueled by public concern over the prospect of detainees moved to local prisons, lawmakers previously denied him funding to close the facility.
The president scored a partial victory, however, when a panel of House and Senate members agreed to allow the continued transfer of detainees to U.S. prisons to await trial. The move is expected to draw a challenge from Republicans who want to ban all detainee transfers to the U.S.
Shutting the prison at Guantanamo Bay was a key Obama campaign promise.
“He'll catch it from the liberal Left but not from anyone else," said Susan MacManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida. “I don't think it hurts him too much, because the public wants to keep that prison open.”
There are more than 200 detainees currently housed in the prison in Cuba. About 80 are eligible for release, and 60 are likely to be prosecuted.
What to do with the rest, plus where to send the 80 set for release, are issues that have proven trickier than expected for a team reviewing the policy.
Another unresolved issue is how and where to prosecute those ready for trial.
The American Civil Liberties Union wants them tried in U.S. federal courts, and not in tribunals, which have different rules for testimony, evidence and appeals.
“With the closure of Guantanamo must also come the end of the policies that the prison has come to represent, such as indefinite detention without charge or trial,” said Jameel Jaffer, director of the ACLU National Security Project. “It would be unacceptable to close Guantanamo only to institute the same policies elsewhere.”
This week, Attorney General Eric Holder conceded that it would be “difficult” to meet the deadline, echoing earlier remarks from Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who last month said it would be “tough.”
In June, a Washington Post/ABC News poll found 50 percent of Americans opposed closing the prison.