In a move that had been planned long before the current prisoner abuse scandal broke in Iraq, the Pentagon has ordered new review procedures for those held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Once a year, a prisoner would be given a formal review before a panel of three military officers to make his case for release. The detainee will not be granted an attorney of choice but be provided with a U.S. military officer to assist in his appearance. Additional written statements from the prisoner's family and home government will also be permissible.
The U.S. government, military and intelligence agencies will also present arguments on whether the prisoner should remain in captivity or be released.
Outside the official process, prisoners at Guantanamo are constantly being re-evaluated, and those no longer considered a threat or of intelligence value are processed for release. Pentagon officials tells NBC News that, of the more than 600 prisoners now held at Guantanamo, as many as 400 may be eligible for release within the next year.
President Bush has determined that six will face military tribunals; the others are eligible for the reviews. More than 100 prisoners have already been released or turned over to the custody of their home countries.
Pentagon officials acknowledge that the more formal one-year review process is being instituted in response to widespread political and diplomatic opposition to the open-ended nature of the U.S. detention policy at Guantanamo.
First reviews in weeks
The first reviews to determine whether U.S. prisoners remain at Guantanamo Bay are expected to begin during the next few weeks, a senior Defense Department official said Tuesday.
In the reviews, a panel of three officers will decide whether prisoners, if released, would remain a threat to the United States, the official said, briefing reporters on the condition of anonymity.
These assessments, held in secret, will be held annually for each prisoner. The results will not be announced.
The panel’s recommendation will be passed to a senior civilian at the Defense Department, who will make the final call. Who will fill that role has not been determined.
Goal: Home or hold
The goal of the reviews is to allow some of the prisoners to go home or be turned over to the custody of their home country if there is no compelling reason for the U.S. military to hold them, officials said.
For each review, one military officer will provide the panel with information on the prisoner, including classified intelligence about his associations and a description of his behavior while at Guantanamo. Another officer will be assigned to assist the prisoner, who can also seek comment from his family and home government.
Defense officials say that the reviews are not required by international law, and that the prisoners at Guantanamo may be held for the duration of the war on terrorism.