By Peter Finn and Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, August 3, 2009
The administration is considering whether to transfer some detainees at the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to a facility in the United States that would contain courtrooms to hold federal criminal trials and military commissions to prosecute terrorism suspects, administration officials said Sunday.
The maximum-security facility would be jointly run by the departments of Defense, Justice and Homeland Security, with each assuming responsibility for different sets of inmates. Officials said such a facility could also house prisoners held in indefinite detention and those cleared for release but who have no country willing to accept them. Those convicted in federal court or military commissions could serve their terms there.
Officials said administration planners looking for one site for the facility have focused on the military prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., and a state maximum-security prison in Standish, Mich., that is scheduled to be closed.
An administration official confirmed that the ideas, which were first reported by the Associated Press on Sunday, have been debated by an interagency task force examining detention policy, but stressed that they have not moved beyond that stage.
"This is one of the ideas that's been floated and come under discussion," the official said, adding that the task force has not decided whether to recommend such a proposal to department heads or, eventually, to President Obama. The official and others interviewed spoke on the condition of anonymity because they had not been authorized to speak publicly about the issue.
In one of his first acts in the White House, Obama signed an executive order that committed his administration to closing Guantanamo Bay within one year. But those plans have run into fierce political opposition, including from some Democrats, and have prolonged internal debates about how to formulate detention policy.
Administration officials said the transfer plan would mitigate the challenge of scattering detainees across numerous jurisdictions, a move that would require a detailed security plan for each and upgrades for many facilities. A single prison would also localize political opposition and, in the case of Michigan, might draw political backing.
"If state and local officials are supportive, the senator believes the idea should be considered," said Tara Andringa, a spokeswoman for Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.).
Some members of the Michigan congressional delegation initially suggested renovating the prison for Guantanamo Bay detainees as a way to help stimulate the economy through public-works jobs in the state's Upper Peninsula, according to administration and congressional sources. But there has also been bipartisan opposition in the state to closing the prison in Cuba.
The U.S. senators from Kansas, Republicans Sam Brownback and Pat Roberts, have been vocal in their opposition to using Fort Leavenworth to house Guantanamo Bay detainees, arguing that the facility in Cuba should be kept open. They also said that any transfer of detainees to Kansas would undermine the ability of the base's Command and General Staff College to attract foreign military personnel who would be reluctant to attend programs at Fort Leavenworth if former Guantanamo Bay detainees were held there.
"It makes no sense to spend millions and millions of dollars to build what we already have at Guantanamo," Brownback said in a statement Sunday. "Fort Leavenworth is a medium security facility with one maximum security wing that can house only 30 prisoners. That wing could not handle all that is required for detainees, support staff, and court facilities. . . . This is a bad idea chasing after another bad idea on a hurry up timeline."
Congress has blocked the administration from using money to transfer to the United States any of the 229 detainees remaining at Guantanamo Bay. And politicians in both parties have said they want to see a detailed plan from the administration before they would support the arrival of prisoners such as Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the self-proclaimed mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
The administration has transferred one Guantanamo Bay detainee to the United States for trial in federal court. Ahmed Ghailani, a Tanzanian, pleaded not guilty in U.S. District Court in Manhattan in June to multiple charges in connection with the bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa in 1998. The attacks killed 224 people, including 12 Americans.
An administration official said the creation of a prison-detention-courthouse facility would not preclude the possibility that a select group of detainees might be tried in New York or Virginia, where the Sept. 11 attacks occurred. Mohammed and four other detainees were facing a capital trial before a military commission until the Obama administration suspended proceedings at Guantanamo Bay.
Administration officials insist they are determined to work with Congress, and any new detention policy, as well as a hybrid facility, would almost certainly need legislative backing. Issues such as how jury pools would be formed for federal trials at such a prison have not been resolved.
The administration has said it has cleared more than 50 Guantanamo Bay prisoners for release, and the State Department is negotiating with governments in Europe and elsewhere to find homes for them. If the administration does not transfer some detainees by January, a new stateside facility could include a lower-security unit like the one at the Cuban facility for detainees who have been cleared for release.
The administration has signaled that some Guantanamo Bay detainees will be tried in federal court and some in military commissions. It also said that there may be a third category of prisoners who are deemed too dangerous to release but who cannot be tried because of a lack of evidence or the need to protect intelligence material.
Administration officials said any system of indefinite detention will include legal safeguards such as periodic reviews by judges and congressional oversight. But human rights and civil liberties groups such as Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union oppose detention without trial.