Closing Gitmo: Timing is Everything

Everyone, from President Bush to both contenders for his job, seems to agree that the prison camp at the U.S. Naval Base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, should be shuttered. The real question now is timing.

Since the Supreme Court issued its sweeping ruling last month granting those detainees access to U.S. courts, on U.S. soil, the White House has been wrestling with the nuts and bolts of operations at Guantanamo -- and whether to close the facilities.

Sources confirmed to ABC News that the process has taken on a new urgency, and meetings among President Bush's top aides -- the Principals -- have focused on a complex array of legal and practical issues over the future of GTMO. They had hoped to present a plan to President Bush as early as tomorrow, before he departs for the G8 summit, though no public announcement is expected.

A sticking point has emerged, however, among some top aides over a critical issue: the fate of military commissions to try top terror suspects.

Sources say there is some disagreement among advisers on whether those commissions should continue for future terror suspects -- a debate that is complicating the discussions.

Sources tell ABC News that Attorney General Michael Mukasey and Defense Secretary Robert Gates are ardent defenders of military commissions for top al-Qaeda suspects. The commissions -- military proceedings with different standards of evidence than criminal trials in U.S. courts -- already are under way for top suspects, including self-described 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed.

According to high-level sources, Mukasey has repeatedly made the argument -- forcefully -- that trials of al-Qaeda suspects are not viable in federal courts and that military commissions are the best way to proceed.

Gates makes an additional point: Military personnel should not be asked to search for evidence on the battlefield that would be required in regular civilian courts, sources say.

But the State Department -- and Secretary Condoleezza Rice -- are more open to the idea of some day bringing at least some suspects to trial in the U.S., sources say.

Moreover, the legal future of military commissions is cloudy. Lawyers for Salim Hamdan, the driver for Osama bin Laden whose trial by commission is scheduled to start July 21, filed court papers this morning asking a federal judge in Washington to block the proceedings. The lawyers contend the Court's decision last month undercuts the entire system of military commissions.

They have asked U.S. District Court Judge James Robertson to block Hamdan's trial so they can challenge "the legality and jurisdiction of the military commissions," in light of the Supreme Court ruling giving the detainees basic constitutional rights.

Robertson had previously struck down an early version of the military commission system.

Hamdan's lawyers have asked Robertson to rule before Hamdan's trial is scheduled to start.

Also unresolved inside the White House is the immediate future of Guantanamo, which has been the target of worldwide criticism.

Among those at the G8 summit next week will be European leaders who also have called for closing Guantanamo. But Rice has asked those who have joined the "Close Guantanamo" chorus to consider the security and human rights implications of freeing many of the detainees, against whom evidence may be insufficient in a U.S. court, but who may well return to jihadism.

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