By David Alexander
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Pentagon said on Wednesday it had begun re-examining the evidence for the continued detention of terrorism suspects held without charge at Guantanamo, Cuba, more than two years after President Barack Obama directed it to develop a review process.
Pentagon officials said the new Periodic Review Board, created to facilitate the eventual closure of the prison, had not yet considered the case of any individual detainee but was now working on the reviews.
"This process makes an important contribution toward the goal of closing Guantanamo by ensuring that the government has a principled and sustainable process for reviewing and revisiting prior detention determinations in light of the current circumstances and intelligence," a Pentagon statement said.
Between 60 and 80 of the 164 prisoners at Guantanamo cannot be prosecuted for various reasons, but are considered too dangerous to be released.
The government intends to hold them indefinitely without charge under the authorization of military force against al Qaeda and its supporters following the September 11 attacks.
The review board will evaluate the threat to U.S. security posed by individual detainees, not the legality of their imprisonment, the Pentagon statement said. The detainees can challenge the legality of their incarceration through the U.S. court system, it said.
For the first time, the board is comprised of representatives from across the national security establishment, including the Departments of State, Justice and Defense, as well as the military Joint Chiefs of Staff and the director of national intelligence.
Some human rights groups questioned the multi-year effort that has gone into reviving a detention review process that began during the George W. Bush administration. Others saw it as a positive sign.
"Instead of propping up a broken system at Guantanamo with the Periodic Review Boards, President Obama should end indefinite detention," said Zeke Johnson of Amnesty International.
"The U.S. government should ensure that each detainee is either given a fair trial in federal court, or released to a country that will respect his human rights," he added.
Dixon Osburn of Human Rights First called the move "a significant step toward accomplishing the administration's goal of shuttering the detention facility," and he urged the new board to finish reviewing all detainees within a year.
Obama campaigned in 2008 on a pledge to close the prison at Guantanamo, which was created during the Bush administration to hold detainees in the U.S. war against al Qaeda. But resistance in Congress and difficulty finding countries willing to take the inmates have prevented the closure.
As part of his push to eliminate the prison, Obama directed the Pentagon in March 2011 to revive a review process to periodically look at whether inmates still pose a threat that merits their detention.
Obama sought to reinvigorate the Guantanamo closure effort earlier this year during a hunger strike by detainees that led to their force-feeding, creating two special envoy positions to work on the project.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Tuesday named congressional committee attorney Paul Lewis as the Pentagon's special envoy on closing Guantanamo. Attorney Clifford Sloan was appointed in June to be the State Department envoy.
(Additional reporting by Jane Sutton; Editing by Peter Cooney)