WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama lifted a ban on new military trials for Guantanamo Bay terror suspects, apparently conceding that the camp he has vowed to close will not be emptied any time soon.
Obama also issued new guidelines to ensure humane and lawful treatment of suspects deemed too dangerous to release, but officials insisted he was still determined to shutter the controversial "war on terror" facility in Cuba.
They said the president still maintained that some suspects could be tried in federal courts, despite fierce opposition and blocking tactics from a bi-partisan front in Congress.
"I am announcing several steps that broaden our ability to bring terrorists to justice, provide oversight for our actions and ensure the humane treatment of detainees," Obama said in a statement.
The orders represented Obama's latest bid to navigate the hideously complicated thicket of legal questions left over from the previous Bush administration's "war on terror" policies.
He instructed Defense Secretary Robert Gates to issue an order rescinding the suspension of new trials that he announced within hours of taking power in January 2009, along with a vow to shutter the Guantanamo Bay camp in a year.
Obama opposed the previous Bush administration's plan for military tribunals while still a senator, and in 2009 said he did not oppose the system per se, but believed it lacked a solid legal grounding.
A senior official argued that Obama's reforms, including on the use of evidence garnered through "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment," made the military commissions process "a sustainable process."
Guantanamo Bay still holds 172 prisoners, including key suspects from the September 11 attacks and other strikes against the United States, as well as prisoners scooped up from the battlefields of Afghanistan.
But senior Obama aides argued privately that the use of military commissions did not mean the president was giving up hope of using federal courts for some trials.
"We've always had the position and continue to have it that it's essential that we have all the tools in our arsenal to fight this," an official said.
"(Civil) prosecutions have been frequent over the years and have been quite successful."
New military trials of Guantanamo Bay detainees could take months or years, and in the absence of any viable plan to move them elsewhere, the move seemed to signal the camp would remain open for some time.
But officials said Obama's bedrock aims remained firm.
"The president does remain committed to closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay, based on, the judgment of our military commanders and our national security team that it hinders our security in the long run," one official said.
Obama also unveiled new procedures on how to treat detainees deemed too dangerous to free or impossible to convict due to tainted evidence and who may remain incarcerated indefinitely.
In an executive order, he ruled that detainees would have the right to a periodic review of the reasons for their continued detention.
If a detainee is deemed to no longer pose a threat to the United States, US government agencies will seek to identify a suitable transfer location -- but no detainees will be released on US soil.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton meanwhile said the administration would ask the Senate to back an addition to the 1949 Geneva Conventions on standards of "fair treatment and fair trial."
The administration also pledged to adhere to another protocol on "humane treatment and fair trial safeguards" for war prisoners.
Obama's order got a mixed response on Capitol Hill.
Patrick Leahy, Democratic chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee slammed the approach as falling "far short of core constitutional values" in offering judicial review or guaranteeing detainees meaningful representation by counsel.
"I am also concerned that these orders do little to bring us closer to closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay," Leahy said.
But Republican congressman Peter King, an outspoken voice on security issues, commended the administration.
"The bottom line is that it affirms the Bush administration policy that our government has the right to detain dangerous terrorists until the cessation of hostilities," he said.
Florida lawmaker Tom Rooney welcomed the resumption of military trials but warned the administration could still thread a legal needle and seek to try alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in a civil court.
"Giving foreign terrorists the same rights as American citizens is unacceptable," Rooney said.
"Terrorists like KSM should be tried by military commission at Guantanamo Bay, and they must never step foot on American soil."