A military judge at Guantanamo on Thursday rejected a White House request to suspend a hearing for the alleged mastermind of the USS Cole bombing, creating an unexpected challenge for the administration as it reviews how to put suspected terrorists on trial.
The judge, Army Col. James Pohl, said his decision was difficult but necessary to protect “the public interest in a speedy trial.” The ruling came in the case against Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri. The bombing of the Navy destroyer in 2000 in the harbor of Aden, Yemen, killed 17 U.S. sailors.
It seemed to take the Pentagon and White House completely by surprise.
“We just learned of the ruling … and we are consulting with the Pentagon and the Department of Justice to explore our options in the case,” said White Press secretary Robert Gibbs. He said he doubted the decision would hamper the administration's ability to decide how to move forward from Guantanamo.
Navy Cmdr. Jeffrey Gordon, a Pentagon spokesman, said: “The Department of Defense is currently reviewing Judge Pohl's ruling. We will be in compliance with the president's orders.”
President Obama has ordered the detention center in Cuba to be closed within a year. The administration asked last week for a 120-day suspension in proceedings against some 20 detainees as it considers whether to continue trying alleged terrorists in the military commissions, revamp them or try suspects in other courts.
On Jan. 22, Obama signed an order directing Defense Secretary Robert Gates to ensure the halting of “all proceedings of such military commissions to which charges have been referred but in which no judgment has been rendered.”
The Cole's former commanding officer, retired Navy Cmdr. Kirk Lippold, said the case “needs to go forward” at Guantanamo.
Navy Lt. Cmdr. Stephen Reyes, the Pentagon-appointed attorney for al-Nashiri, said the decision gives the Obama administration few options.
“The next step, if the government wants to halt the proceedings, is to withdraw the charges,” Reyes said.