Attorney General Eric Holder said Wednesday there may be 50 or more trials of Guantanamo Bay detainees as the Obama administration works to shut the detention center by early next year.
Holder discussed the plan before the Senate Judiciary Committee, where the senior Republican called him "too soft" on terrorism while a second GOP lawmaker said he was on the right track in handling detainees.
Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., criticized Holder for the release of Bush administration memos that authorized harsh interrogation techniques. Sessions said the memos gave important information to America's enemies.
Holder told senators protecting Americans from terrorists is his top priority.
229 detainees remain
Under questioning from Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., Holder outlined efforts to close Guantanamo. Last week, the administration shipped 10 detainees from Guantanamo, leaving 229 still there. President Barack Obama has ordered the center closed by January.
Graham said he expected about one-quarter or fewer of the inmates to be brought to civilian or military trial. Holder said he thought that figure was "about right."
Holder did not commit to any specific figure and said authorities have only worked through about half the detainee cases so far.
"I don't think we're going to have a very huge number" going to trial, Holder said.
Several of the lawyers representing detainees have previously estimated about two dozen might end up on trial.
If the 25 percent figure were to hold, it would mean about 56 detainees would face a trial of some kind by U.S. authorities. A separate group of detainees would be sent to foreign countries; a third group, the most difficult, would not be released or put on trial.
Holder said officials were discussing how to handle such suspects and whether new legislation would be required to hold them. He said even without a trial, a judge would have to review the basis for holding such detainees.
Open process urged
"The thought we had was that there would be some kind of review with regard to the initial determination and then a periodic review," Holder said.
"I think you're on the right track," the senator said. "I want an independent judiciary basically validating what the intelligence community and the military says about this person."
Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., urged the attorney general to make the detainee decisions "an open process" to win the confidence of the American public and the trust of foreign leaders.
"What we're trying to do is make the world understand that we're trying a different approach," said Holder, in order to remove the Guantanamo issue as a recruiting tool for terrorists and repair relations with other nations that have criticized its operation.
At the hearing, Holder appealed for passage of a tougher version of a hate crimes law. He cited recent shooting attacks around the country in which a museum guard, an abortion provider and a military recruiter were killed in brazen attacks.