Hurdle to Closing Guantanamo: Where to Put Inmates

By Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 2, 2006; A08

The Supreme Court decision striking down military commissions for detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, has renewed calls for the government to close the facility that has held terrorism suspects for four years. The problem facing U.S. officials is how to shut down Guantanamo and what to do with the 450 men who are still there -- in particular, about 100 they consider too dangerous to ever release.

U.S. officials acknowledge that closing Guantanamo Bay is likely, though there is no timetable and no specific plan for how to do it. While the State Department works to repatriate nearly two-thirds of the prison's population via complex negotiations with other nations, the Bush administration will have to decide what to do with the core group who officials claim would kill Americans if they were freed.

Senior administration officials, requesting anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter, said there are only two options for the men the United States deems too dangerous to release: transfer them to federal or military prisons in the United States -- such as the supermax facilities or Fort Leavenworth -- or arrange for another country to assume responsibility for their detention.

So far, no third country has said it would be willing to take the men, and the Bush administration has been reluctant to consider allowing them to be transferred onto U.S. soil. Senior officials said in interviews it is possible that any suspects who are convicted of crimes could land in U.S. prisons.

The United States has taken that step previously with international criminals, such as Panamanian Gen. Manuel Noriega, who was convicted in 1992 on drug trafficking and racketeering charges and is incarcerated in a federal prison near Miami. Admitted al-Qaeda operative Zacarias Moussaoui is serving a life sentence in a Colorado supermax prison along with Ramzi Yousef, convicted in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center in New York.

White House spokesman Tony Snow told reporters aboard Air Force One on Friday that closing the facility will not be easy, adding that the administration does not want some of the people there to cross the U.S. border.

"You close it when you finish handling all the cases of people who are at Guantanamo," Snow said. "And, as we've said many times, you don't simply shut it down. There are some people who you do not want on American soil, who you want to go ahead and conclude the process of bringing them to justice, and repatriating those to whom it is appropriate to repatriate."

President Bush and senior administration officials have said they want Guantanamo Bay to close, in large part because the detention center has become an enormously negative symbol.

John B. Bellinger III, legal adviser to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, said last week that there are about 300 detainees from Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and Yemen who are likely to be returned to the custody of their home countries when agreements can be worked out.

Retired Army Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey wrote in a recent academic paper for the U.S. Military Academy that the United States should "rapidly weed out as many detainees as possible and return them to their host nation with an evidence package as complete as we can produce," urging countries to try their nationals for war crimes and terrorist actions. If detainees are released in their own countries and appear back on the battlefield fighting the United States -- as the administration has contended will happen -- "it may be cheaper and cleaner to kill them in combat than sit on them for the next 15 years," McCaffrey wrote.

McCaffrey also advocates putting the 25 most dangerous terrorism suspects on trial in U.S. courts or by courts-martial, followed by civil indefinite detention in a U.S. territory.

Human rights groups do not necessarily disagree with putting detainees who are convicted by a sound legal system in jail, and they believe the Supreme Court decision could provide an avenue toward that legal framework.

"There are probably people at Guantanamo who should be held, and they should be brought to the United States," said Elisa Massimino, Washington director of Human Rights First. "If there's anybody in there that they have evidence of a crime against, they can try them."

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) introduced legislation last year calling for a solid legal framework at Guantanamo Bay that would require U.S. officials to either charge, release or repatriate detainees within two years, except in extraordinary circumstances.

"The problem with closing down Guantanamo is you're still going to need a place to hold the worst of the worst . . . and closing down Guantanamo means opening up something else somewhere else," Schiff said Friday, saying that he favors a location inside the United States, either in an existing facility or a new special prison. "I'm more concerned about making sure that they're tried in a way where they can be detained if necessary than what we call the facility or where we put it."

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