Debate Over Guantanamo's Fate Intensifies
By Dan Eggen and Josh White
The Bush administration is developing a long-range plan to empty the Guantanamo Bay military prison that could include asking Congress to spell out procedures for scores of suspected terrorists whom the government does not plan to bring to trial, administration officials and others familiar with high-level White House discussions on the issue said yesterday.
Under one scenario being considered by President Bush's Cabinet, about 80 detainees would remain at the facility in Cuba to be tried by military commissions, and about 65 others would be turned over to their native countries, according to several sources familiar with the talks, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
But the focus of the intensifying debate is what to do with about 120 remaining prisoners, who are viewed by the administration as too dangerous to release but who are unlikely to be brought before military commissions because of a lack of evidence. Officials are considering whether to propose legislation in coming days that would establish legal procedures for such prisoners, who could be transferred to military or civilian prisons on the U.S. mainland, sources said.
The debate follows a Supreme Court ruling last month that gave Guantanamo detainees the right to challenge their imprisonment in U.S. civilian courts. Senior administration officials have been scrambling to formulate a response, including holding Cabinet-level meetings on the topic the past two days, officials said.
Bush has said for at least two years that he would like to close Guantanamo Bay, but he and his aides said in response to an ABC News report that no such decision has been made. Instead, officials said, the administration's debate is focused on what steps would be necessary for such a closure, including moving scores of terrorism suspects to other U.S. detention facilities.
"We're analyzing the decision and how to move forward, and there's no decision that is imminent on Guantanamo," Bush said in an interview yesterday with Fox News. "But nevertheless, we have an obligation to live under the law, so we are fully analyzing the impact of the law. . . . We'll get it done as quickly as possible."
One official familiar with the internal discussions said that there is a consensus favoring legislation that would deal with the problems posed by the high court's ruling, but that details are still being debated. It is also unclear, the official said, whether the Democratic Congress would pass such potentially controversial legislation during a presidential election year.
Lawmakers in Kansas, for example, have already reacted negatively to a proposal from Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, to move some detainees to the military prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. His Democratic rival, Sen. Barack Obama, has also said that he would move detainees to Leavenworth and other civilian and military facilities, and that he would close Guantanamo.
About 265 detainees remain at Guantanamo, which was set up in January 2002 to hold terrorism suspects captured after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. The decision to detain people there has elicited heated international criticism.
Twenty detainees have been charged as part of a military commission system set up by Congress in 2006, including five accused of participating in the conspiracy that led to the Sept. 11 attacks.
Only 20 detainees have been sent to Guantanamo since October 2004. Sources said that under the new plans being considered by the Bush administration, no more detainees would be sent to the facility for indefinite detention, although some could be moved there from U.S.-run detention facilities in Afghanistan and elsewhere on a short-term basis for military commissions.
The Supreme Court ruled 5 to 4 on June 12 that foreign terrorism suspects held at Guantanamo have rights under the Constitution to challenge their detention in civilian courts, and that the system put in place to classify suspects as enemy combatants and to review those decisions is inadequate.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has advocated closing Guantanamo since he took office in 2006, believing that the detention facility is so tainted by its reputation that it hurts the United States internationally. He has suggested that Congress come up with ideas for solving the problem, but lawmakers have not done so.
"He's very pragmatic and realistic about this and is open to alternatives that would allow Guantanamo to be closed," said one defense official who was not authorized to speak publicly about the discussions. "But it must be a legal construct that enables the United States, and the world at large, to keep these hard-core terrorists from being able to attack innocent people."
Perhaps most illustrative of the problem is a group of approximately 100 Yemeni detainees who have been held at Guantanamo for years, some of whom have been cleared for release to their native land.
U.S. officials have concerns about Yemen's ability to securely hold those suspected of terrorism, particularly in light of the country's lax handling of suspects in the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole. Administration officials traveled to Yemen last week to discuss the issue.
Yemen's government says it has designed a repatriation program for former Guantanamo detainees, modeled on a successful effort in Saudi Arabia. "The minister just met with some U.S. officials, and he expressed our readiness and willingness and eagerness to receive the Yemeni detainees now in Guantanamo," said Mohammed Albasha, a spokesman for the Yemeni Embassy in Washington. "We are ready to receive all of our detainees tomorrow if they are handed over to our doorsteps."
But so far, U.S. officials are not convinced Yemen is ready. The Bush administration is considering sending home roughly 10 Yemeni detainees who have been cleared for release, perhaps in a matter of days, as a test. The rest will remain in Guantanamo for now, officials said.