The U.S. Defense Department top lawyer on Thursday said the Obama administration remains committed to closing the Guantanamo Bay prison by early next year but stopped short of assuring it will happen.
Pentagon general counsel Jeh Johnson's comments came as Congress weighs how to revamp a military court system — a key part of President Barack Obama's pledge to close Guantanamo by Jan. 22.
But legal questions remain on how to prosecute and detain the 226 suspected al-Qaida, Taliban and foreign fighters currently held at the U.S. military prison in Cuba. That has cast doubt on whether the Obama administration can resolve the questions in just over four months, and prompted top Republicans in Congress to demand that the prison stay open for now.
Johnson told a national security panel of American Bar Association lawyers that there are many issues involved in closing Guantanamo Bay and transferring detainees elsewhere.
"But we all remain committed to doing this, and we remain committed to doing this on the deadline that the president set," Johnson said. "But there are many challenges."
Still at odds with Senate plan
Underscoring those challenges, Johnson also said he hoped that legislation to overhaul the Bush-era military commissions court system would be completed by the end of this month.
In brief remarks to The Associated Press, Johnson cautioned that administration lawyers are still at odds with a Senate plan that defines providing material support to terrorists as a war crime.
Material support is a federal crime, but the charge was elevated to a laws of war violation in the 2006 Military Commissions Act pushed by then-President George W. Bush. The issue is important because it will determine what kind of court some of the Guantanamo detainees will be tried in. The government wants to resolve it before deciding to which U.S. prisons the detainees can be moved.
"We don't believe that material support is a law of war offense," Johnson said. "That's still our position. Material support is still in the bill. Don't know how that's going to end up."
Meanwhile, the government faces a deadline next Thursday to continue with several key military commissions cases that have been on hold while the administration continues to work on revising the commissions law and closing the detention center. Pentagon lawyers could simply ask for another extension and keep the cases on hold.
Speaking on the eve of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Johnson described the administration's struggle to follow legal and moral guidelines when dealing with terror detainees while protecting America from al-Qaida.
Ultimately, he said, the government must ensure that U.S. laws follow what he called American values that do not allow cruel or degrading treatment of detainees — and that military troops and interrogators alike clearly understand those rules.
"There are no easy answers to the questions that we face," Johnson said. "But I'd like you all to be patient with us. We are doing our best."