Attorney General Eric Holder says the Obama administration's January deadline for closing the Guantanamo Bay detention center in Cuba will be tough to meet. But he tells NPR that a decision on which detainees will stand trial and what kind of court they will face will be made in the coming month.
In an interview Thursday with All Things Considered host Robert Siegel, Holder says the possibility of closing Guantanamo by Jan. 22 "still exists, but it will be difficult to meet that deadline.
"We continue to make great progress with the work we're doing, and the task forces that are looking at the people who are still housed there, and to make the determinations as to who can be transferred and who will be prosecuted," he says.
Those decisions and the decision on whether terrorism suspects would stand trial before civilian courts or military tribunals "will be made by the middle of November," Holder says.
During President George W. Bush's administration, nearly 800 prisoners were swept up on the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq and elsewhere, and ordered held at the Guantanamo Bay prison. More than 220 are still in detention.
What to do with those detainees has become a thorny problem for the White House. Other nations have been reluctant to take them in, and some lawmakers have sought to prevent their incarceration in the mainland U.S. prison system.
"Some of the concerns that have been expressed by at least some in Congress seem illogical to me," Holder says.
"We have in our prison system now people who are terrorists, people who are unbelievably bad criminals — and they are no threat to the surrounding community," he adds.
Later Thursday, House Democrats handed the administration a partial victory by beating back a Republican bid to block the transfer of any prisoners to U.S. soil for trial.
Asked whether a detainee who had been repeatedly subjected to harsh interrogation techniques — such as simulated drowning, commonly known as waterboarding — could receive a fair trial, Holder says it is possible.
"I think you can have a fair trial," he said. "We have trials that occur all the time in which police conduct is called into question, where ultimately a trial is made fair as a result of the evidentiary rules that we apply."
Although no determination has been made regarding where trials of terrorism suspects might take place, Holder says the Justice Department is "actively engaged in that process, and we hope that relatively soon we will be able to safely hold those trials."
He says that regardless of venue, the conditions for defendants would be "consistent with the Geneva Convention."
Holder also touched on the subject of the lengthy appointment process for U.S. attorneys — of 93, only 30 have been nominated and 17 confirmed so far, according to the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Holder says accusations of politicized hiring procedures during the Bush years were one reason he was being cautious. He says he wants "to get this right" so that the attorneys will be in a position to "enforce the law in an impartial, nonpolitical way."
The attorney general says that 60 to 65 candidates had either been nominated or were being vetted, and that he hoped the process could be finished by the first part of next year.