Detentions May Last Years
The New York Times
Neil A. Lewis and Eric Schmitt
February 13, 2004
12 - Senior Defense Department officials said Thursday that they
were planning to keep a large portion of the detainees at Guantánamo
Bay, Cuba, there for many years, perhaps indefinitely.
The officials said
they would soon set up a panel to review those long-term prisoners'
cases annually to determine whether the men remained a threat
to the United States or could be released. The
officials described the panel as a "quasi-parole board"
that would comprise three members before whom prisoners could
personally plead their case for release. At the same time, the
officials said, in the coming months they will continue to release
to the home governments many other prisoners deemed not to be
a continuing danger.
The officials spoke
as part of a Pentagon effort to counter sharp criticism by members
of human rights groups and foreign governments about the situation
at Guantánamo, where some 650 people, most of them captured
in Afghanistan, are being held under maximum security, some as
long as two years without being charged with any offense. Defense
Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld is scheduled to discuss the matter
in a speech Friday in Miami.
One senior Defense
Department official who spoke on condition of anonymity said critics
in the United States and abroad had greatly misunderstood the
situation at Guantánamo and the need to detain so many
people without charging them.
"We feel very
much like we are in an active war," said the official, asserting
that the civilian law enforcement model in which people are prosecuted
for crimes or set free did not apply. "What we're doing at
Guantánamo is more understandable in the war context,"
the official said.
The official said
that while some critics worried about the rights of the detainees,
the Pentagon was more concerned with "the rights of the soldiers
having these people not going back to the battlefield" and
the rights of the soldiers' families not to have their relatives
face the same men in combat.
Many of the prisoners,
a senior military official said, remain committed to indiscriminately
killing American civilians and soldiers and would be too dangerous
The argument that
the detentions should be seen in a wartime context is, however,
unlikely to satisfy many critics. Michael Ratner, the president
of the Center for Constitutional Rights, said that "the idea
that you could theoretically keep someone locked up forever under
these circumstances is reprehensible." Mr. Ratner, whose
New York-based organization has challenged the Guantánamo
detentions, said he was taken aback by what he called the administration's
to do with law as any person should understand it, at least since
the Magna Carta," he said. "How do you know without
a trial that these people are even dangerous? It all depends on
the military's word."
But the United States
officials insisted many prisoners at Guantánamo were "the
worst of the worst." They said that over the course of many
months of interrogation and intelligence work, they had come to
believe that many of the people being held were senior operatives
of Al Qaeda who had been involved in active plots against Americans.
Although they are
impossible to verify independently, one defense official described
several individual cases including one man described as a bodyguard
for Osama bin Laden, another who had been involved in planning
attacks on tankers in the Persian Gulf, another who officials
said was involved in attacks against United States embassies in
Africa in 1998 and two others who were involved in financing Qaeda
effort was painstaking, defense officials said, noting that one
prisoner had 13 aliases.
Those believed to
be involved with Al Qaeda, the officials said, could be brought
before military tribunals for which elaborate rules have been
established but which have not yet been put into effect.
a person is to be charged before a military commission is not
the reason we're holding them," said the senior defense official.
The official said it was possible that an individual could be
convicted by a tribunal and serve a five-year sentence and then
not be released if he were judged to remain a danger.
The panel that would
evaluate long-term prisoners' fitness to be released could hear
not only from the detainee, but also from the prisoner's home
government, the officials said. The panel's decisions would eventually
be reviewed by the secretary of defense.
The officials said
there was no decision yet on who would serve on the panel or whether
they would be in the military or civilians.
official described the plan for dealing with Guantánamo
as having increasingly large transfers of less dangerous prisoners
to their home governments for possible prosecution, thus winnowing
down the population to a hard-core group.
The senior defense
official who spoke Thursday said the category of those who could
eventually be repatriated could include anywhere from 100 to 300
The military has
released more than 80 Guantánamo prisoners to their home
governments so far, saying they were deemed not to be a threat
or of further intelligence use. The administration official said
that scores more would be transferred in the next few months.
has been in intense negotiations with several governments who
might agree to accept the return of their citizens.
are building a hard-walled traditional prison alongside the corrugated
metal units that have housed detainees for nearly two years at
the Guantánamo naval base on the southeastern tip of Cuba.
The prison, which is expected to be ready this summer, will be
able to house about 100 people, military officials have said.
Although the rules
for military tribunals include the possibility of capital punishment,
officials said there were no plans to build an execution chamber
in the new prison.
The government has
argued that the detainees are not entitled to American constitutional
protections because the Guantánamo base is outside United
States territory. Two courts have supported that view and the
Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments in April.