Dozens of Guantanamo Bay detainee cases have been referred to federal prosecutors for possible criminal trials in the nation's capital, Virginia and New York City, officials told The Associated Press on Monday as a second strategy for trying the detainees emerged within the Obama administration.
The Justice Department's strategy of holding trials in East Coast cities could be a sharp departure from a Pentagon plan to hold all Guantanamo-related civilian and military trials in the Midwest.
The politically volatile decisions about where and how to try Guantanamo Bay detainees ultimately will rest with President Barack Obama as he tries to meet his self-imposed January deadline for closing the island prison.
Obama administration officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss internal deliberations, said Attorney General Eric Holder met privately last week with the chief federal prosecutor in each of the East Coast areas to discuss the preparations for possible indictments and trials in those districts.
Justice Department spokesman Matthew Miller said the Guantanamo Bay detainee task force "has referred a significant number of cases for possible prosecution, and those cases have now been sent to U.S. Attorney offices who are reviewing them with prosecutors from the Office of Military Commissions." His statement didn't identify the districts involved.
Final decisions yet to be made
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said no final decisions have been made on where in the U.S. to transfer Guantanamo detainees.
One official said prosecutors and military lawyers are now reviewing the individual cases. The work is aimed at indicting individuals in civilian courts, but final decisions have not been made on the cases and some of the inmates whose cases were referred could still end up before military commissions instead.
Officials said the districts which have been referred Guantanamo cases are: Washington, D.C.; the Eastern District of Virginia, which has a courthouse in Alexandria, Va.; the Southern District of New York, which is based in lower Manhattan in New York City; and the Eastern District of New York, which is based in the New York borough of Brooklyn.
Each district has experience prosecuting high-profile terrorism cases, and each courthouse has high-security facilities for holding particularly dangerous inmates.
Yet the plan to hold terror trials in those cities may run afoul of a separate initiative being considered to build a courtroom-within-a-prison complex in the U.S. heartland.
Several senior U.S. officials said the administration is eyeing a soon-to-be-shuttered state maximum security prison in Michigan and the military penitentiary at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., as possible locations for a heavily guarded site to hold the suspected 229 al-Qaida, Taliban, and foreign fighters now jailed at Guantanamo.
The president has said some detainees will be tried in civilian courts, some in military commissions, and some will be held without trial because they are simply too dangerous but the evidence against them cannot be aired in any courtroom.
The proposed Midwest facility would operate as a hybrid prison system jointly operated by the Justice Department, the military and the Department of Homeland Security.
Justice, pentagon face legal problems
Both the Justice and Pentagon plans face legal and logistical problems.
If a significant number of civilian trials were to be held in the Midwest, the government might have to send in prosecutors and judges experienced in terrorism cases, and lawyers for the detainees could object to the jury pool.
Such a plan would also require an expensive upgrade of the facilities in Kansas or Michigan, and it's unclear if there is enough time for such work under the president's deadline.
But trying them on the East Coast could generate more of the kind of public opposition that led Congress earlier this year to yank funding for bringing such detainees to U.S. soil until the administration produces an acceptable plan for shuttering the Guantanamo facility.
The Obama administration has already transferred one detainee to U.S. courts — Ahmed Ghailani was sent to New York in June to face charges he helped blow up U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998.