By Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama lifted a two-year freeze on new military trials at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba and suggested on Monday 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 suspended new trials at the Guantanamo tribunals, which had been heavily criticized as unfair, when he announced his review of detainee policy in early 2009 and vowed just after becoming president that he would close the camp.
Administration officials said Obama still wants to close the prison, which they have called a recruiting tool for anti-American militants, but gave no timeframe.
Obama had tried, and failed, to overcome objections by Republicans and some of his fellow Democrats in Congress to transferring some detainees to U.S. prisons and trying Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, mastermind of the September 11 attacks, and others in federal courts.
The administration has also struggled to convince other countries to accept detainees.
Obama said on Monday he still wanted some -- 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 are deemed to pose a threat to U.S. security.
He ordered reviews of the determination that some detainees were so dangerous they must be held without charge, with a review for each coming as quickly as possible, but no later than one year from the order.
RIGHTS GROUPS DISAPPOINTED
The first round of new charges against detainees could come within days or weeks, a senior administration official said.
Obama also said he would ask the Senate to ratify additions to the Geneva conventions that safeguard the rights of victims of conflicts within nations, such as the one in Afghanistan, as opposed to those between nations.
Afghanistan has signed that protocol, and some experts said the United States signing could give Washington the option of transferring detainees to Afghanistan.
Administration officials said on Monday 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 were disappointed.
Hina Shamsi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's National Security Project, said the best way to get out of "the Guantanamo morass" would be to use the U.S. courts.
"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," she told Reuters.
There are still 172 detainees at Guantanamo. About three dozen were set for prosecution in either U.S. criminal courts or military commissions. There were 242 detainess when Obama took office. Many have been held there for more than nine years.
"The president's ongoing commitment to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay holds," a senior administration official said.
"We've done a lot of legwork in the service of closing Guantanamo bay," he said.
The White House blasted some members of Congress who sought to "undermine" efforts to bring Guantanamo defendants to justice, pointing particularly to restrictions enacted in December on prosecuting detainees in federal courts.
Congressional responses to Monday's announcement were along party lines, with Democrats supporting Obama and Republicans criticizing him for failing to work with Congress to come up with a long-term plan for holding detainees.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said he hoped the new trials would start soon. "The administration's earlier decision to bring the 9/11 plotters into our communities for civilian trials was a horrible idea that rightly drew widespread opposition," he said.
(Additional reporting by Jane Sutton in Miami, and Caren Bohan, Jeff Mason and Phil Stewart in Washington; Editing by Todd Eastham)