WASHINGTON (AP) - President Barack Obama planned to meet Friday
with families of 9/11 victims and the 17 sailors killed in the bombing of the USS Cole, responding to anger over delays in bringing terror suspects to trial.
The White House meeting was scheduled for the day after a senior
Pentagon judge dropped charges against an al-Qaida suspect being
held at Guantanamo Bay.
Thursday's legal move by Susan J. Crawford, the top legal authority for military trials at Guantanamo, upholds Obama's Jan. 22 executive order to halt terrorist court proceedings at the U.S. Navy base in Cuba, while the administration reviews the cases and how to go about closing the prison there. The charges against suspected Cole bomber Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri marked the last active Guantanamo war crimes case.
Groups representing victims' families were angered by Obama's order, charging they had waited too long already to see the alleged attackers brought to court.
Retired Navy Cmdr. Kirk S. Lippold, the commanding officer of the Cole when it was bombed in Yemen in 2000, said he would be among family members of Cole and 9/11 victims who are meeting with Obama at the White House on Friday afternoon.
"I was certainly disappointed with the decision to delay the military commissions process," Lippold, now a defense adviser to Military Families United, said in an interview. "We have already waited eight years. Justice delayed is justice denied. We must allow the military commission process to go forward."
Conservatives in Congress have suggested that dangerous terrorists would be released under Obama's plan - a scenario that Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he could not imagine - and that Guantanamo Bay is a cushy deal for prisoners.
In a YouTube video posted from the prison this week, Republican Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., said detainees' access to dental work, colonoscopies and other medical procedures is proof they aren't being mistreated.
"These people are much better taken care than they have been in their entire lives," he said. Closing the prison "would be a terrible risk to us and all of Oklahoma."
Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said Crawford withdrew the charges against al-Nashiri. However, new charges could be brought
again later, and al-Nashiri will remain in prison for the time being.
"It was her decision, but it reflects the fact that the president has issued an executive order which mandates that the military commissions be halted pending the outcome of several reviews of our operations down at Guantanamo," Morrell said.
Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, top Republican on the House Judiciary
Committee, said he was concerned about the order to suspend charges
against al-Nashiri. Smith said al-Nashiri had "orchestrated the mass murder of American soldiers" and must be punished.
"I urge them to reinstate the charges as quickly as possible and in a manner that ensures justice for the families and victims," Smith said in a statement Friday.
Crawford's ruling gives the White House time to review the legal cases of all 245 terror suspects held there and decide whether they should be prosecuted in the U.S. or released to other nations.
Seventeen U.S. sailors died on Oct. 12, 2000, when al-Qaida suicide bombers steered an explosives-laden boat into the Cole, a guided-missile destroyer, as it sat in a Yemen port.
The Pentagon last summer charged al-Nashiri, a Saudi Arabian, with "organizing and directing" the bombing and planned to seek the death penalty in the case.
In his Jan. 22 order, Obama promised to shut down the Guantanamo
prison within a year. The order also froze all Guantanamo detainee
legal cases pending a three-month review as the Obama
administration decides where - or whether - to prosecute the suspects who have been held there for years, most without charges.
Two military judges granted Obama's request for a delay in other cases.
But a third military judge, Army Col. James Pohl, defied Obama's order by scheduling a Feb. 9 arraignment for al-Nashiri at Guantanamo. That left the decision on whether to continue to Crawford, whose delay on announcing what she would do prompted widespread concern at the Pentagon that she would refuse to follow orders and allow the court process to continue.
Crawford was appointed to her post in 2007 by then-President
George W. Bush. She was in the news last month when she said
interrogation methods used on one suspect at Guantanamo amounted to
torture. The Bush administration had maintained it did not torture.
Last year, al-Nashiri said during a Guantanamo hearing that he confessed to helping plot the Cole bombing only because he was tortured by U.S. interrogators. The CIA has admitted he was among
terrorist suspects subjected to waterboarding, which simulates drowning, in 2002 and 2003 while being interrogated in secret CIA prisons.
Associated Press writer Anne Flaherty contributed to this
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