President-elect Barack Obama’s transition team has begun examining what to do with suspected terrorists at the U.S. prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, which Obama has pledged to close, an aide said Monday.
Denis McDonough, a senior adviser to the incoming Democrat, said no decisions have been made about what to do with the 255 inmates there, “and there is no process in place to make that decision until his national security and legal teams are assembled.” But officials close to the Obama team said Monday that the incoming administration is pondering whether to try some of the Guantanamo Bay inmates in existing federal courts; set up a special national security court to deal with cases involving the most sensitive intelligence information; or release others. The scenario would eliminate the military commissions set up by the Bush administration to prosecute some of the top al Qaeda figures held at the facility, such as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed — the lead plotter of the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington. The commissions have been delayed for years by legal challenges, and the U.S. Supreme Court ruled an earlier version of them unconstitutional in 2006. In a full-page ad in The New York Times on Monday, the American Civil Liberties Union urged Obama to close Guantanamo Bay on his first day in office, “with the stroke of a pen.” But in an October 31 interview with CNN, Obama said only that he would close the facility “as quickly as we can do prudently.” “I am not going to give a time certain because I think what we have to do is evaluate all those who are still being held in Gitmo,” he said. “We have to put in place appropriate plans to make sure they are tried, convicted and punished to the full extent of the law, and that’s going to require, I think, a review of the existing cases, which I have not had the opportunity to do.”
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President Bush said in 2006 that he would like to close the prison, but said it needed to remain open to house what he called “cold-blooded killers.” In May, Defense Secretary Robert Gates told a Senate committee that efforts to shut down the facility were stuck over what to do with the inmates. The Pentagon’s chief prosecutor resigned in protest in 2007 after declaring the military commissions had become “deeply politicized.” Critics say the camp has damaged the reputation of the United States overseas, with a U.N. report in 2006 declaring that interrogation techniques used on prisoners “amounted to torture.” “Some of those techniques clearly had a useful purpose for collecting intelligence — but in my opinion, went too far for use in an American court of justice in a criminal proceeding,” said the former prosecutor, now-retired Air Force Col. Morris Davis. Jennifer Daskal, a lawyer for Human Rights Watch, said some of the prisoners who have been released have gone back to their home countries, where they “did bad things.” But she said holding prisoners without charges “has caused the United States much more harm than it has good.” Some conservatives, however, don’t like the idea of bringing suspected terrorists the government calls dangerous to the U.S. mainland. “There’s really no place in the United States that can replicate the sort of operational security features that Guantanamo has,” said David Rivkin, a former Justice Department official.