President Obama appeared to rule out issuing an executive order to establish indefinite detention Thursday, nearly a week after White House officials first acknowledged that it was an option.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Obama said that if he goes ahead with indefinite detentions for terrorism suspects that he would ask Congress to approve it by law.
"It is very important that the American people and Congress, in conjunction with my administration, come up with a structure that is not only legitimate in the eyes of our constitutional traditions, but also in the eyes of the international community," he said, according to the AP.
Last Friday, ProPublica and the Washington Post wrote that the White House, facing difficulties in Congress over the closure of the prison facility at Guantanamo Bay, were considering an executive order to hold suspects that may be too dangerous to release and too difficult to charge, according to three government officials.
Other news organizations, including the New York Times, also reported that an executive order was under consideration. Administration officials told the Times that working with Congress did not necessarily mean passing legislation. Mr. Obama, they said, would consult with lawmakers even if he eventually decided to enact his system through executive order.
Several Congressional staff, also speaking on the condition of anonymity, told us that administration lawyers in recent weeks acknowledged in private discussions that they were considering an executive order.
In response to our previous story, Ben LaBolt, a White House spokesman, acknowledged that an executive order was an option but said no decision had been made and that the president was waiting to see recommendations from a Justice Department Task Force studying detention policy. The task force has until July 22 to offer proposals.
One administration official suggested last week that the White House was already trying to build support for an executive order.
"Civil liberties groups have encouraged the administration, that if a prolonged detention system were to be sought, to do it through executive order," the official told ProPublica. Such an order could be rescinded and would not block later efforts to write legislation, but civil liberties groups generally oppose long-term detention, arguing that detainees should be prosecuted or released.
The possibility of carrying out such a policy through an executive order was widely criticized by civil rights groups last week, including the American Civil Liberties Union.
In a May speech, Obama broached the possibility of prolonged detention for some detainees whom the administration may categorize as too dangerous to release but too difficult to charge.
Obama told the AP Thursday that indefinitely imprisoning terror suspects is "one of the biggest challenges of my administration."
"It gives me huge pause," Obama said. "And that's why we're going to proceed very carefully on this front. And it may turn out that after looking at all the dimensions of this that I don't feel comfortable with the proposals that surface on how to deal with this issue."