President Barack Obama plans to sign an executive order Thursday to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center within a year and halt military trials of terrorism suspects held there, a senior administration official said.
The executive order was one of three expected imminently on how to interrogate and prosecute al-Qaida, Taliban or other foreign fighters believed to be threats to U.S. security.
The official said the president would sign the order Thursday to fulfill his campaign promise to shut down a facility that critics around the world say violates domestic and international human rights. The aide spoke on condition of anonymity because the event has not yet been announced.
An estimated 245 men still are held at the facility in the U.S. naval base in Cuba, and 600 others at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. Most have been detained for years without being charged with a crime. The administration already has received permission to suspend the trials at Guantanamo for 120 days pending a review of the military tribunals.
A copy of a draft of the order, obtained Wednesday by The Associated Press, dealt only with the Guantanamo prison.
"In view of the significant concerns raised by these detentions, both within the United States and internationally, prompt and appropriate disposition of the individuals currently detained at Guantanamo and closure of the facility would further the national security and foreign policy interests of the United States and the interests of justice," the draft order said.
Three prisons could house prisoners
At least three military prisons — at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, Camp Pendleton, California, and Charleston, South Carolina — could house some of the Guantanamo detainees, an administration official said. Also under consideration, the official said, is the Supermax prison in Florence, Colorado, which houses convicted 9/11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui and Eric Rudolph, convicted of setting off a bomb at the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta, Georgia.
A senior Obama administration official said Wednesday that 60 to 120 Guantanamo prisoners might be considered low-threat detainees and transferred to other countries, either for rehabilitation or release. Only Portugal so far has agreed to take some of those detainees, this official said, although diplomatic discussions are under way. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the executive orders have not been issued yet. A State Department spokesman did not immediately know which nations had been asked to accept some prisoners.
Other detainees could be imprisoned in their home nations. The rest probably would be transferred to prisons in the United States, which many members of Congress oppose.
Public interest and human rights groups long have wanted the Guantanamo facility shuttered and were quick to urge Obama to be more aggressive than the draft order's proposals.
The Center for Constitutional Rights, which provides many of the Guantanamo detainees with legal representation, said the draft does not give specific steps for closing the facility.
"It only took days to put these men in Guantanamo. It shouldn't take a year to get them out," said Vincent Warren, the center's executive director.
The draft requires a review of each Guantanamo case to decide whether the detainees should be returned to their home countries, released, transferred elsewhere or sent to another U.S. prison.
The Republican leader in the U.S. House of Representatives, John Boehner, said he is open to options, "but most local communities around America don't want dangerous terrorists imported into their neighborhoods, and I can't blame them."
"The key question is where do you put these terrorists," Boehner said Wednesday. "Do you bring them inside our borders? Do you release them back into the battlefield? If there is a better solution, we're open to hearing it."
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Democrat, has long contended the United States can handle relocating the detainees "just as it has handled the worst criminals and other terrorists before," Leahy spokesman David Carle said.
Prosecution method unclear
It also remains unclear how the detainees would be prosecuted.
At the request of the White House, Defense Secretary Robert Gates ordered Tuesday night that military trials at Guantanamo be frozen for 120 days during an Obama administration review. Military judges agreed Wednesday to halt the cases of five men charged in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, along with the case of a Canadian accused of killing an American soldier in Afghanistan when he was 15 years old.
"The president has clearly made his intentions well known," Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said Wednesday, "and he has taken the first steps with respect to his direction to order a pause to military commission proceedings."
The second administration official said the 120-day suspension could be extended indefinitely if the review should conclude that the current military trial system, devised by advisers to former President George W. Bush, should end.
If that should happen, the cases probably would be heard by federal courts under long-standing military or civilian criminal law.
It also is possible the Obama administration could design a new national security court system, a hybrid of the two, although the official described that as "a last resort."
John D. Altenburg Jr., a retired Army general who oversaw the military commissions until November 2006, says Guantanamo should stay open and the tribunals should continue.
Trying detainees in federal courts is problematic, he says, because the evidence was collected "on a battlefield" and may be inadmissible outside the commissions, although "it doesn't mean the evidence is tainted."
Two more executive orders are expected in coming days, according to two Obama officials. Those will deal with what methods will be allowed to interrogate terror suspects.
One official said the first interrogation order will require all U.S. personnel to follow the U.S. Army Field Manual while questioning detainees. The manual explicitly prohibits threats, coercion, physical abuse and waterboarding, a technique that creates the sensation of drowning and has been termed a form of torture by critics.
At the same time, the second order will demand a study of interrogation methods that could be added to the Army manual. It was unknown Wednesday what those methods could include, but officials have said they would be more aggressive than what is currently allowed.
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