America's top attorney, Eric Holder, on Wednesday night described his assignment to empty the prison camps at Guantánamo "indisputably the most daunting challenge I face as attorney general.''
President Barack Obama put Holder in charge of a Cabinet-level task force assigned to transfer each of the 240 or so war on terror captives from the camps in southeast Cuba, which the Bush administration opened in Jan. 11, 2002.
The president also set a Jan. 22 deadline to put the detention center out of business.
''This task will not be easy,'' Holder said in dissecting the assignment in embargoed remarks released by the Justice Department ahead of the speech Wednesday night at West Point's Center for the Rule of Law.
"On the contrary, it is indisputably the most daunting challenge I face as Attorney General.''
He said the challenge was to sort among the captives and divide them between three categories:
• Those who "we will likely conclude no longer pose a threat to the United States and can be released or transferred to the custody of other countries. ''
• Those the U.S. will choose to prosecute in federal court.
• The detainees who are ''too dangerous to release'' yet have ''insurmountable obstacles'' to prosecuting them in federal court.
At issue may be detainees from whom confessions were gleaned through brutal interrogations. Holder has already labeled as torture one CIA interrogation technique, waterboarding.
The CIA has confirmed that agents did this to three detainees now at Guantánamo, among the 16 former agency-held captives brought there in September 2006 from secret overseas jails. Obama has since ordered those so-called black sites closed.
Unclear is how the United States could continue to hold detainees whom it continues unable to prosecute.
Holder said "some of the brightest minds in our nation are working to answer that question and to address the ramifications that each potential answer presents.''
"I pledge that the ultimate solution will be one that is grounded in our Constitution, based on congressional enactments, in compliance with international laws of war, and consistent with the rule of law. ''