WASHINGTON - The Obama administration, fearing a battle with Congress that could stall plans to close the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, is drafting an executive order that would reassert presidential authority to incarcerate terrorism suspects indefinitely, according to three senior government officials with knowledge of White House deliberations.
Such an order would embrace claims by former president George W. Bush that certain people can be detained without trial for long periods under the laws of war. Obama advisers are concerned that bypassing Congress could place the president on weaker footing before the courts and anger key supporters, the officials said.
After months of internal debate over how to close the facility in Cuba, White House officials are increasingly worried that reaching quick agreement with Congress on a new detention system may be impossible. Several officials said there is concern in the White House that the administration may not be able to close the facility by the president's January deadline.
White House spokesman Ben LaBolt said there is no executive order and that the administration has not decided whether to issue one. But one administration official suggested that the White House was already trying to build support.
"Civil liberties groups have encouraged the administration, that if a prolonged detention system were to be sought, to do it through executive order," the official said. Such an order could be rescinded and would not block later efforts to write legislation, but civil liberties groups generally oppose long-term detention, arguing that detainees should be prosecuted or released.
The Justice Department has declined to comment on the prospects for a long-term detention system while internal reviews of Guantanamo detainees are underway. One task force, which is assessing detainee policy, is expected to complete its work by July 21.
In a May speech, President Obama broached the need for a system of long-term detention and suggested that it would include congressional and judicial oversight. "We must recognize that these detention policies cannot be unbounded. They can't be based simply on what I or the executive branch decide alone," he said.
Some of Obama's top legal advisers, along with a handful of influential Republican and Democratic lawmakers, have pushed for the creation of a "national security court" to supervise the incarceration of detainees deemed too dangerous to release but who cannot be charged or tried.
But the three senior government officials said the White House has turned away from that option, at least for now, because legislation establishing a special court would be difficult to pass and likely to fracture Obama's party. These officials, as well as others interviewed for this article, spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about internal deliberations.
On the day Obama took office, 242 men were imprisoned at Guantanamo. In his May speech, the president outlined five strategies the administration would use to deal with them: criminal trials, revamped military tribunals, transfers to other countries, releases and continued detention.
Since the inauguration, 11 detainees have been released or transferred, one prisoner committed suicide, and one was moved to New York to face terrorism charges in federal court.
Administration officials said the cases of about half of the remaining 229 detainees have been reviewed for prosecution or release. Two officials involved in a Justice Department review of possible prosecutions said the administration is strongly considering criminal charges in federal court for Khalid Sheik Mohammed and three other detainees accused of involvement in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.