By Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama on Monday lifted a two-year freeze on new military trials at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba and suggested Congress was hurting national security by blocking his attempts to move some trials into U.S. civilian courts.
In an apparent acknowledgment that the Guantanamo detention camp won't be shut down any time soon, Obama also outlined procedures for reviews to be held at least every four years for prisoners held indefinitely without charge or trial.
Obama had suspended new trials at the camp when he announced his review of detainee policy in early 2009, when he promised to close the Guantanamo camp, and had pushed to overcome objections by Republicans in Congress to trying some Guantanamo prisoners in federal courts.
He said on Monday he still wanted to some detainees -- all terrorism suspects -- to face civilian trials, and resistance to doing so undermined U.S. counter-terrorism efforts.
"I strongly believe that the American system of justice is a key part of our arsenal in the war against al Qaeda and its affiliates, and we will continue to draw on all aspects of our justice system -- including Article III courts (U.S. federal courts) -- to ensure that our security and our values are strengthened," Obama said in a statement.
Obama also issued an executive order on Monday establishing a process to continue to hold some Guantanamo detainees who have been neither charged, convicted nor designated for transfer but who are deemed to pose a threat to U.S. security.
He ordered regular reviews of the determination that some detainees were so dangerous they must be held, with the review for each detainee coming as quickly as possible, but no later than one year from the order.
Administration officials said they still wanted to eventually close the prison, which they have called a recruiting tool for anti-American militants. They say it has made it hard to negotiate with some U.S. allies to take in detainees who have been cleared of any wrongdoing.
In Monday's announcement, officials said the camp system had already been improved by measures including banning the use of statements taken as a result of cruel treatment and a better system for handling classified information.
Rights activists said they were disappointed.
"The best way to get America out of the Guantanamo morass is to use the most reliable tool we have -- our criminal justice system," Hina Shamsi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's National Security Project, told Reuters.
"Instead, the Obama administration has chosen to institutionalize unlawful, indefinite detentions and to revive illegitimate military commissions, which will do nothing to remove the stain on America's reputation that Guantanamo represents."
There are still 172 detainees at the Guantanamo prison and about three dozen were set for prosecution in either U.S. criminal courts or military commissions. Republicans and some Democrats had demanded the trials be held at Guantanamo.
(Editing by Todd Eastham)
(Additional reporting by Jane Sutton in Miami, and Caren Bohan, Jeff Mason and Phil Stewart in Washington; Editing by Sandra Maler)