FBI Director Robert Mueller told Congress on Wednesday that bringing Guantanamo Bay detainees to the United States could pose a number of risks, even if they were kept in maximum-security prisons. Responding to FBI concerns, Attorney General Eric Holder said the Obama administration would not put Americans at risk.
Testifying before the House Judiciary Committee, Mueller faced repeated questions about the prospect of transferring to the United States some of the 240 inmates currently held at the naval base in Cuba.
President Barack Obama has ordered the Guantanamo Bay detention center closed by January 2010, but that timetable may be in jeopardy. As Mueller testified, the Senate voted overwhelmingly to block funding for bringing detainees to the U.S., whether freed or imprisoned.
Meanwhile, an Obama administration official said that the administration plans to announce Thursday that a top al-Qaida suspect held at Guantanamo Bay will be sent to New York for trial.
Ahmed Ghailani would be the first Guantanamo detainee brought to the U.S., and the first to face trial in a civilian criminal court.
'Financing, radicalizing others'
At the start of Wednesday's hearing, Mueller was asked what concerns the FBI has about the release of Guantanamo detainees.
"The concerns we have about individuals who may support terrorism being in the United States run from concerns about providing financing, radicalizing others," Mueller said, as well as "the potential for individuals undertaking attacks in the United States."
"All of those are relevant concerns," Mueller said.
The FBI chief said he would not discuss specific individuals. He said there were also potential risks to putting detainees in maximum security prisons.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., whose district includes the World Trade Center site, then prodded Mueller to agree that such individuals could be safely kept in maximum security prisons in the United States.
Mueller balked at Nadler's suggestion, noting that in some instances imprisoned gang leaders have run their operations from inside prisons.
"It depends on the circumstances," Mueller said.
Asked about Mueller's comments, Attorney General Eric Holder said the government won't do anything with detainees "that's going to put the American people at risk."
"The concerns that have been expressed by the director, concerns expressed by other people, will all be taken into account," Holder said, adding that the administration is still working on the closure plan and he still believes they can meet the president's deadline in eight months.
GOP critical of Obama on the issue
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs declined to respond directly to Mueller.
"The president hasn't decided where some of the detainees will be transferred. Those are decisions that the task forces are working on and that the president will lay out and discuss tomorrow," Gibbs told reporters.
Republicans have been criticizing Obama on the issue, and even fellow Democrats say they need to see a plan for closing Guantanamo before they can support the White House.
Republicans urged Mueller to take the FBI's concerns to the White House.
"No good purpose is served by allowing known terrorists, who trained at terrorist training camps, to come to the U.S. and live among us," said Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, the senior Republican on the committee. "Guantanamo Bay was never meant to be an Ellis Island."
Mueller was also asked if he had a solution for what to do with the detainees.
"I don't," Mueller answered. "It's a very difficult issue and people are honestly wrestling with what the best resolution is."
Judge rules on Gitmo detainees
Mueller's statements come a day after a federal judge ruled that the United States can continue to hold some prisoners in military detention indefinitely without any charges.
U.S. District Judge John Bates' opinion issued Tuesday night limited the Obama administration's definition of who can be held. But he said Congress in the days after Sept. 11, 2001 gave the president the authority to hold anyone involved in planning, aiding or carrying out the terrorist attacks.
Bates' opinion comes amid increasing debate over whether Obama is going to release anyone from Guantanamo. Obama has promised to close the prison by January, but Senate Democrats say they will block the move until he comes up with a plan for the detainees.
Bates' opinion came in the case of several Guantanamo prisoners who are challenging their detention. ACLU attorney Jonathan Hafetz said the opinion "flouts the Constitution's prohibition against indefinite detention without charge."
"The decision wrongly concludes that terrorism suspects at Guantanamo may continue to languish in military detention rather than being prosecuted in our civilian courts," Hafetz said. "Like the president's recent decision to revive military commissions, this ruling perpetuates rather than ends the failed experiment in lawlessness that is Guantanamo."
Earlier this year, Bates ordered the Obama administration to give its definition of whom the United States can continue to hold at Guantanamo. The administration responded with a definition that was largely similar to the Bush administration's, drawing criticism from human rights advocates.