CIA Director Leon Panetta told Congress on Wednesday that if Osama bin Laden or his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri is captured they will be held by the military and probably will be sent to Guantanamo Bay, the first time any senior administration official has outlined a detention plan for al-Qaeda's top leadership.
"We would probably move them quickly into military jurisdiction at Bagram and then eventually move them probably to Guantanamo," said Panetta, referring to the detention center at Bagram Air Base outside Kabul, in testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Panetta's statement was some indication that the administration is contemplating the future use of the military detention center in Cuba even though it says it is still committed to closing the facility. No detainee has been moved there by the Obama administration, and the George W. Bush administration last moved a person to the facility, which now holds 172 detainees, in March 2008.
Congress has barred the administration from moving any Guantanamo detainee into the United States for any purpose. And Panetta's statement would appear to rule out a federal trial, at least under current law, because it would require sending the two men directly to the United States from Bagram with no stop in Cuba.
Some former officials said Panetta's statement amounted to an admission that the Obama administration, as much as its predecessor, needs Guantanamo or an equivalent facility to house any high-value detainees it captures in the future.
"Serious people realize they are a potential intelligence bonanza," said Charles D. "Cully" Stimson, who was deputy assistant secretary of defense for detainee affairs in the Bush administration and is a senior legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation. "It would be irresponsible not to attempt to interrogate them through lawful means over a long period of time in a protected place free from any attempt to free them. There is but one place."
The Bush administration custom-built a high-security facility at Guantanamo Bay that houses 15 high-value detainees, including Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the self-declared mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
After Panetta spoke, James R. Clapper Jr., the director of national intelligence, added: "If we were to capture either one of those luminaries - if I can use that term - I think that that would probably be a matter of some interagency discussions as to, you know, what their ultimate disposition would be and whether they would be tried or not."
A spokesman for the CIA said later that Panetta's remarks were not conclusive and that what might happen to bin Laden "would have to be informed by the circumstances of his capture" and discussions among policymakers.
"The director fully supports the president's commitment to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay because, as our military commanders have made clear, it's in our national security interest to do so," said agency spokesman George Little.
Obama administration officials have said the chances of detaining either man is negligible as they would kill themselves, or have their guards kill them, to avoid capture.
"You're talking about a hypothetical that will never occur," said Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., when asked in March if bin Laden would enjoy constitutional protections. "The reality is that we will be reading Miranda rights to the corpse of Osama bin Laden. He will never appear in an American courtroom."
U.S. intelligence officials think that bin Laden and Zawahiri remain in hiding in Pakistan's rugged and semiautonomous tribal belt where the CIA continues to hunt them.
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.