Debate Over Guantanamo's Fate Intensifies

By Dan Eggen and Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, July 4, 2008

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.

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