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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Steve Inskeep is in Cairo, and we'll be hearing his reports from there over the next couple of weeks. I'm Renee Montagne.

ARI SHAPIRO, host:

And I'm Ari Shapiro.

President Obama came into office promising to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay within a year. It has now been two years. And the president is formally acknowledging that the prison will remain open for some time to come. He has decided to resume military trials at Guantanamo, and Mr. Obama has established a system to hold some detainees indefinitely, without trial.

NPR's Mara Liasson reports.

MARA LIASSON: The executive order the president issued yesterday lends formal permission to the policy by which the U.S. has held detainees at the Guantanamo Bay Prison. These are detainees who, in most cases, have not been charged or convicted, but who are deemed too dangerous to release.

The president also ended a two-year ban on the use of military commissions to try suspected terrorists. In a statement yesterday, Mr. Obama said that his new Guantanamo Bay policies, including military trials, will help bring terrorists to justice.

The new policy statement was not much other than recognition of fact and frustration. Congress has forbidden the administration to bring terrorism suspects onto American soil from Guantanamo, for trial or imprisonment. And Congress has also made it harder to send the detainees to other countries.

The president said he's still committed to closing the prison and trying terrorists in civilian courts. But the announcement made it clear that he would not be able to fulfill one of his most famous promises.

President BARACK OBAMA: I have said repeatedly that I intend to close Guantanamo, and I will follow through on that.

LIASSON: That was Mr. Obama on "60 Minutes," shortly after he was elected. The president's order yesterday is an end to a difficult chapter in the story of Guantanamo and the Obama White House.

Ben Wittes is an expert on law and terrorism at the Brookings Institution.

Mr. BEN WITTES (Expert on Law and Terrorism, Brookings Institution): It begins a process of breaking the paralysis that has gripped the administration on a subject that was, you know, two years ago, supposed to be one of their early and very vivid accomplishments. And this has turned out very badly for them.

LIASSON: And so, Wittes says, yesterday's order also acknowledges that the prison population has probably reached an irreducible minimum.

Mr. WITTES: And the executive order is 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 United States when they close Guantanamo. But that doesn't seem to be happening, either.

LIASSON: The administration put the military trials on hold for two years so that it could review the status of the 170 or so detainees remaining at Gitmo, and to make changes in the military tribunals, including rules of evidence and a review process for detainees.

Administration officials who briefed reporters on background yesterday say these changes will protect America's security and uphold the rule of law.

But the White House move was the latest in a series of disappointments for civil libertarians, including Hina Shamsi, the director of the ACLU's National Security Project.

Ms. HINA SHAMSI (Director, National Security Project, ACLU): 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. And since then, we've only taken steps backward.

LIASSON: The ACLU says it will continue to bring legal challenges to the military commissions, arguing 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's been in custody at Guantanamo since 2006.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, the White House.

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