Defense Secretary Robert Gates suggested Thursday that as many as 100 detainees would be held without trial on American soil if the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, was closed, a situation that he acknowledged would create widespread if not unanimous opposition in Congress.
The estimate was the most specific yet from the Obama administration about how many of the 241 prisoners at Guantanamo could not be safely released, sent to other countries or appropriately tried in U.S. courts. In January, President Barack Obama ordered the prison closed by the end of the year, but his administration is still trying to decide what to do with the detainees.
Gates said discussions had started this week with the Justice Department about determining how many of the Guantanamo detainees could not be sent to other countries or tried in courts. He did not say which detainees might be in that group, but independent experts have said it probably would include terrorism suspects whom the military has not yet brought charges against, among them detainees from Yemen and the Qaida figure Abu Zubaydah, who was subjected to brutal interrogation in secret prisons run by the CIA.
“What do we do with the 50 to 100 — probably in that ballpark — who we cannot release and cannot try?” Gates said in a hearing before the Senate Appropriations Committee.
He did not say whether the detainees would be imprisoned temporarily or indefinitely or under what law they would be held. The Obama administration is debating how to establish a legal basis for incarcerating detainees deemed too dangerous to be released but not appropriate to be tried because of potential problems posed by their harsh interrogations, the evidence against them or other issues.
Some Republicans have become increasingly vocal in asserting that the administration has not come up with a viable alternative to the Guantanamo prison. “The question of where the terrorists at Guantanamo will be sent is no joking matter,” Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the minority leader, said in a statement Thursday. “The administration needs to tell the American people how it will keep the terrorists at Guantanamo out of our neighborhoods and off of the battlefield.”
At the hearing, Gates said he had asked for $50 million in supplemental financing in case a facility needed to be built quickly for the detainees. He did not specify what kind of facility or where it might be, but he acknowledged that it would be unpopular in most places.
“I fully expect to have 535 pieces of legislation before this is over saying ‘not in my district, not in my state,”’ Gates said. “We’ll just have to deal with that when the time comes.”
On Wednesday in Berlin, Attorney General Eric Holder said the legal basis for holding any detainees was still under review. “We have to determine what would be our basis for holding that person that would to the world appear to be fair and that would in fact be fair,” he said. “How could you ensure that due process was being served by the detention of such a person?”