By Michael D. Shear, Peter Finn and Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, February 6, 2009
President Obama will meet today with victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the USS Cole bombing and their families as his administration reviews how to handle detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The meeting comes as the judge overseeing military trials at Guantanamo ordered charges against Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri withdrawn, overturning an earlier ruling that the case against the alleged organizer of the Cole bombing should go forward Monday as scheduled.
Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said Judge Susan J. Crawford overruled the decision, bringing the case into compliance with an order Obama issued in his first week in office to suspend Guantanamo cases.
The afternoon meeting at the White House will give the new president a chance to explain his decision to close the controversial prison facility where the United States has placed many suspected terrorists since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
The White House said in a statement that Obama "wants to talk with these families about resolving the issues involved with closing Guantanamo Bay -- while keeping the safety and security of the American people as his top priority."
Obama has been assailed by conservative critics who say the decision to close the facility within a year will lead to putting many of those terrorists back on the street.
The president has defended that decision, saying that closing the facility will make the country safer by putting an end to one of the most controversial symbols of U.S. efforts to fight terrorism, including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He said that symbol has helped terrorist groups to recruit new volunteers.
One Sept. 11 activist, who declined to be identified talking about the meeting, said "fireworks" are likely at the gathering because it will include participants who oppose Obama's plan to close Guantanamo Bay and those who support it.
"There's been some noise that some families don't like the idea and others do, so this is a chance to discuss that," the activist said.
Jim Riches, a retired New York firefighter whose son, Jimmy Riches, died in the Sept. 11 attacks, said in an interview yesterday that he wants to hear from Obama what the government intends to do with the prisoners.
"I want to know, are they going to drop the charges? Are they going to try them in another court?" he said. "I want to let them know that these men are dangerous."
Riches praised the president for agreeing to a meeting so soon after taking office.
"The issue . . . is what are they going to do with those detainees. We want justice for the ones that said they did it," he said.
Retired Navy Cmdr. Kirk S. Lippold -- the skipper of the Cole when it was attacked in the Yemeni port of Aden on Oct. 12, 2000, leaving 17 U.S. sailors dead and nearly 40 wounded -- said he planned to attend.
"I'm very happy he's meeting with the families of the Cole. I'm looking forward to hearing what the president has to say," Lippold said.
The administration may want to impress on the families that it is not permanently dropping charges against alleged terrorists, including Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the self-proclaimed mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks who is facing capital charges at Guantanamo, and that he and others will be prosecuted.
Obama had instructed military prosecutors to seek a 120-day suspension of the military commissions at Guantanamo Bay while the administration studied how to handle the approximately 245 detainees at the facility when the prison is closed.
Friday's meeting may, in part, be to explain that the charges in those cases can be reinstated at a later date in some different form of military commissions system. The tactic was also used by the Bush administration when it wanted to stop various proceedings at Guantanamo. The Pentagon under Bush dismissed without prejudice charges in six cases and reinstated them later in three of those cases.
If the case had proceeded against Nashiri, a Saudi facing capital charges, a guilty plea could have boxed in the administration. The legal principle of double jeopardy would apply, and it would have been very difficult to move his case to another court, according to defense attorneys.
In an interview yesterday, White House counsel Gregory B. Craig said that on a day-to-day basis, one of his primary tasks is reviewing the status of Guantanamo detainees and the process of closing the base.
He said the president has demanded "a thorough factual review for each detainee so that the decision that is made -- whether to transfer him or whether to release this person or whether to prosecute this person or whether to retain and detain this person for the future -- [is] based on an understanding of the facts and the evidence."
Staff writer Anne E. Kornblut contributed to this report.