President Barack Obama met Friday with relatives of victims of the bombing of the USS Cole and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, telling them he wants the same thing they do — justice for their loved ones.
In the hour-long session with roughly 40 family members of the victims, Obama said he wanted wanted the meeting to be just the beginning of a dialogue.
"The president made it clear that his most important responsibility is to keep the American people safe. He explained why he believes that closing Guantanamo will make our nation safer and help ensure that those who are guilty receive swift and certain justice within a legal framework that is durable, and that helps America fight terrorism more effectively around the world," according to a White House statement.
Among the attendees was Sally Regenhard, who lost her son, a New York City firefighter, at the World Trade Center on 9/11. She said Obama promised to make sure that justice is done and that the families will have an open line of communication with the White House.
Obama is concerned that terror suspects have been held for years at the U.S. detention center in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, without trial. He wants to close the facility and has signed an executive order to do so within a year.
Friday's meeting came a day after a senior Pentagon judge dropped charges against an al-Qaida suspect in the Cole attack being held at Guantanamo Bay.
The 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. The charges against suspected al-Qaida 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, was among family members of Cole and 9/11 victims who met with Obama at the White House.
"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 before the meeting. "We have already waited eight years. Justice delayed is justice denied. We must allow the military commission process to go forward."
Gitmo cases under review
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.
Crawford's ruling also 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.