Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said he and his colleagues were willing to work with the president, but said they needed him to come up with a “cohesive plan.”
Obama said he would ask the Defense Department to identify a site in the United States to hold prosecutions by military commissions. That site could be used to prosecute a number of detainees held at Guantanamo, where two trials, including one against the alleged Sept. 11, 2001, plotters, are already underway. The administration also has been considering transferring some of the 50 or so non-Afghans captured and held in Afghanistan for trials by military commissions, according to a U.S. official.
Holding trials before military commissions would also require a prison facility for those facing trial and those who are convicted. In Obama’s first term, the administration tried to acquire a state prison in Illinois for this purpose but faced opposition from Congress.
Human rights groups welcomed Obama’s reengagement on the issue but were concerned about his willingness to continue using military trials.
“The president’s plan to move detainees into the United States, including for prosecution before discredited military commissions, is not the answer,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “The detainees should either be prosecuted in U.S. civilian courts or released.”
The Yemeni government welcomed Obama’s remarks and said it “will work with the United States to take all necessary steps to ensure the safe return of its detainees and will continue working towards their gradual rehabilitation and integration back into society.”
In his speech, Obama glided over the toughest subset of detainees among the 166 men held at Guantanamo: those who are deemed too dangerous to release but who cannot be charged.
In 2009, the Obama administration said there were 48 Guantanamo detainees who fell into this category and would be held indefinitely without trial. That number may have increased, because the federal courts have ruled that military prosecutors cannot use the charge of material support. That decision has deprived the government of the ability to charge a significant number of detainees.
One U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss potential legal proceedings, said there are viable military cases against at most a dozen Guantanamo detainees, including the six already on trial.
In his speech, Obama acknowledged the difficulty of the problem, but only indirectly.
“I am confident that this legacy problem can be resolved,” he said, “consistent with our commitment to the rule of law.”