WASHINGTON - A key report ordered by U.S. President Barack Obama as part of his effort to close the internationally condemned Guantanamo prison will be delayed six months, but officials insisted on Monday they were still on track to shut it down by January.
Amid divisions between the administration and lawmakers over the fate of Guantanamo inmates, Obama aides said a task force crafting a new policy on terrorism detainees would miss its Tuesday deadline for offering its full recommendations.
Instead, the government panel issued an interim report late on Monday that provided an overview of the options, including prosecution in U.S. civilian courts and by military commission or the transfer of suspects to other countries.
A separate government task force reviewing detainee interrogation rules also fell short of its Tuesday deadline and was granted an extra two months to submit a final report.
Obama has promised to close the prison at a U.S. Navy base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, by January, saying it had damaged the United States' moral standing in the world. But the delays could signal the difficulties he faces meeting that pledge.
The prison was opened under former President George W. Bush after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, and has drawn international criticism for holding prisoners indefinitely, many without charge. About 230 inmates remain.
Though postponement of the two reports could raise questions about Obama's timetable, officials said the administration remained committed to his target date for shuttering Guantanamo -- within a year of his inauguration this year.
"Are we on target to meet the deadline?" one official said at a briefing for reporters. "The answer is yes."
MORE TIME TO CONSULT CONGRESS
Officials said extensions were sought -- and granted -- in order to conduct the most comprehensive reviews possible as well as to consult thoroughly with Congress. "These are hard, complicated, consequential decisions," an aide said.
Obama has faced strong opposition from lawmakers, including those in his own Democratic party, to transferring Guantanamo prisoners to U.S. soil for detention and trial. In May, Congress demanded a detailed plan on closing Guantanamo before they would grant him the necessary funds to do it.
Obama, who ordered an end to harsh interrogation of terrorism suspects within days of taking office, has insisted some will be tried in U.S. courts while others will be tried by military commissions or transferred to other countries.
But Mitch McConnell, leader of the Republican minority in the U.S. Senate, said it had become "increasingly clear over time that the administration announced its intent to close (Guantanamo) without a plan."
Government lawyers have completed reviews of about half of the detainees and have decided to transfer "substantially more" than 50 of them to other countries and prosecute a "significant" number of others, an official said.
Another official said Washington was making headway getting countries in Europe and elsewhere to accept prisoners, though some did not want any publicity on the subject. So far, however, only a small number have been taken in by other governments, including Saudi Arabia, Chad, Iraq and Bermuda.
The prison has long been the target of criticism by rights groups and some foreign governments, which accused the Bush administration of condoning torture of inmates held there.
The five-page interim report issued on Monday said prosecution "must occur as soon as possible" but asserted that "justice cannot be done" unless the accused are given a "full and fair opportunity to contest the charges against them."
(Editing by Paul Simao)