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Congress Considers New US Terror Detainee Process

Obama administration officials urged the congress Friday to move forward with proposed changes to the military commissions system, which the president has said he wants to continue to use to put alleged terrorists on trial.

As legislation works its way through congress, the House of Representatives' Armed Services Committee called in two top administration lawyers to discuss detainee issues. The two men work on a task force President Obama created in January to figure out how to close the detention center at Guantanamo Bay within a year, and what to do with the 219 detainees now held there.

The Defense Department's General Counsel, Jeh Charles Johnson, told the members what the task force has done so far.

"So far, the detainee review task force has approved the transfer of substantially more than 50 detainees to other countries, consistent with security and treatment considerations, and a number of others have been referred to a DoJ/DoD [Department of Justice/Department of Defense] prosecution team for potential prosecution either in an Article 3 Federal Court or by military commission," said Johnson.

Johnson said the teams from the Departments of Justice and Defense do what he called "a fact-intense review" to determine how to proceed with each case.

The task force missed its six-month deadline this week, and the president gave it an extension for another six months, but also said he still intends to close the Guantanamo center as planned. The president has also already decided to continue the controversial Bush Administration practice of trying terrorism detainees in military commissions. And he has acknowledged it might be necessary to hold some detainees long-term without trial because there is not enough evidence against them, or the evidence must be kept secret. But the president says such detentions should be subject to periodic review.

The congress is now working on the reforms Mr. Obama wants. The House Armed Services Committee Chairman, Representative Ike Skelton, expressed concern that the task force was not able to work out the details by now.

"With little more than five months to go, the lack of details on how Guantanamo should be closed, where detainees will be transferred, what precautions will be taken to protect communities, the costs associated with a closure decision and a range of related considerations is, frankly, disturbing. A detailed plan should be proposed as soon as possible," he said.

Members of congress from both parties have expressed concern about the possibility that some Guantanamo detainees might be transferred to prisons in the United States. There are also concerns about the plan for long-term detentions without trial - with some members concerned detainees might be held too long or unfairly, and others concerned detainees might be released too soon and pose a danger to U.S. citizens.

The senior Republican Party member of the committee, Representative Howard McKeon, stated his top priority.

"A comprehensive detention policy must include a strengthened authority to detain, and a preventive detention framework," he stressed.

McKeon said the policy must also ensure detainees are not released into the United States and do not return to terrorism elsewhere, and that most of those tried should be tried in military commissions, rather the U.S. civilian courts.

President Obama's decision to continue the military commissions, with some reforms, was controversial, particularly among human rights advocates who believe the commissions are not as fair, or as legitimate, as civilian courts. At Friday's hearing, Assistant Attorney General David Kris said the military commissions have some advantages over other options.

"That is, not only detain them for longer than might otherwise be possible under the laws of war, but also brand them as illegitimate war criminals. To do this effectively, however, the commissions themselves must first be reformed," he said.

It is that reform that the congress and the president's task force are working on, with the president's deadline looming in January.