President Obama's order to resume military trials at Guantanamo Bay and establish a system to hold some detainees indefinitely ends a difficult chapter in the story of the U.S. prison and the Obama White House.
Obama came into office two years ago promising to close the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, within a year. The executive order he announced Monday serves as acknowledgment that it will remain open for some time.
The order lends formal permission to the policy by which the U.S. has held detainees at the prison — detainees who, in most cases, have not been charged or convicted but are deemed too dangerous to release. It also ends a two-year ban on the use of military commissions to try suspected terrorists.
Obama said Monday that his new policies will help "bring terrorists to justice." But the new policy statement wasn't much more than a recognition of fact and frustration.
Congress has forbidden the administration to bring terrorism suspects from Guantanamo onto American soil for trial or imprisonment and also has made it harder to send detainees to other countries.
Obama has said he is still committed to closing the prison and trying terrorists in civilian courts. But Monday's announcement made it clear that he would not be able to fulfill one of his most famous promises: "I have said repeatedly that I intend to close Guantanamo, and will follow through on that," he said on 60 Minutes shortly after he was elected.
"This has turned out very badly for them," says Ben Wittes, an expert on law and terrorism at the Brookings Institution.
The executive order "begins a process of breaking the paralysis that has gripped the administration on a subject that was, two years ago, supposed to be one of their early and very vivid accomplishments," Wittes says.
The order also acknowledges that the prison population has probably reached an irreducible minimum, he says. It's "an effort to create a process for long-term detainees at Guantanamo, whom they are not going to be letting go anytime soon and they hope to be eventually moving to the U.S. when they close Guantanamo," he says. "But that doesn't seem to be happening, either."
The administration put the military trials on hold for two years so that it could review the status of the 170 or so remaining detainees and make changes in the military tribunals, including rules of evidence and a review process for the detainees.
Administration officials who briefed reporters on background Monday said the changes will protect America's security and uphold the rule of law.
But for civil libertarians like Hina Shamsi, the director of the ACLU's National Security Project, the White House move is the latest in a series of disappointments.
"On the issue of Guantanamo, the high-water mark of the civil liberties record of President Obama on this issue may have been two days after he took office," Shamsi says, "and since then we have only taken steps backward."
The ACLU says it will continue to bring legal challenges to the military commissions, arguing that they do not comply with U.S. or international law.
Meanwhile, new military tribunals are expected to begin again soon. The first trial will be for Abd Al Rahim al-Nashiri, the man accused of masterminding the bombing of the USS Cole, an American warship, in 2000. He has been in custody at Guantanamo since 2006.