Washington — The Bush administration is nearing a decision to close the Guantanamo Bay detainee facility and move the terror suspects there to military prisons elsewhere, The Associated Press has learned.
President Bush's national security and legal advisers are expected to discuss the move at the White House today and, for the first time, it appears a consensus is developing, senior administration officials said Thursday.
The advisers will consider a proposal to shut the center and transfer detainees to one or more Defense Department facilities, including the maximum security military prison at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas, where they could face trial, said the officials. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were discussing internal deliberations.
Officials familiar with the agenda of today's meeting said Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, Homeland Security Chief Michael Chertoff, National Intelligence Director Mike McConnell and Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Gen. Peter Pace were expected to attend.
It was not immediately clear if the meeting would result in a final recommendation to Bush.
Rep. Nancy Boyda, D-Kan., whose district includes Leavenworth, is concerned about the possibility of housing detainees in Kansas, said Shanan Guinn, her chief of staff.
"She feels that moving the detainees to Leavenworth would make it a prime terrorist target and the disciplinary barracks simply does not have the room or the correct security features to handle detainees," Guinn said.
Previous plans to close Guantanamo have run into resistance from Cheney, Gonzales and former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. But officials said the new suggestion is gaining momentum with at least tacit support from the State and Homeland Security departments, the Pentagon, and the Intelligence directorate.
Cheney's office and the Justice Department have been dead set against the step, arguing that moving "unlawful" enemy combatant suspects to the U.S. would give them undeserved legal rights.
They could still block the proposal, but pressure to close Guantanamo has been building since a Supreme Court decision last year that found a previous system for prosecuting enemy combatants illegal. Recent rulings by military judges threw out charges against two terrorism suspects under a new tribunal scheme.
Those decisions have dealt a blow to the administration's efforts to begin prosecuting dozens of Guantanamo detainees regarded as the nation's most dangerous terror suspects.
A spokeswoman for Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said the senator hasn't taken a stand on the possibility of prisoners being moved to Kansas.
"Having been to Gitmo, Sen. Roberts understands the complexities of a decision to move detainees," said spokeswoman Sarah Little. "He says there are many things to consider and at this stage, it would be very premature to take a position."
In Congress, recently introduced legislation would require Guantanamo's closure. One measure would designate Fort Leavenworth as the new detention facility.
Another bill would grant new rights to those held at Guantanamo Bay, including access to lawyers regardless of whether the prisoners are put on trial. Still another would allow detainees to protest their detentions in federal court, something they are now denied.
Gates, who took over the Pentagon after Rumsfeld was forced out last year, has said Congress and the administration should work together to allow the U.S. to permanently imprison some of the more dangerous Guantanamo Bay detainees elsewhere so the facility can be closed.
Military officials told Congress this month that the prison at Fort Leavenworth has 70 open beds and that the brig at a naval base in Charleston, S.C., has space for an additional 100 prisoners.
The Guantanamo Bay prison, where some 380 alleged terrorists are now detained, has been a flash point for criticism of the Bush administration at home and abroad. It was set up in 2002 to house terror suspects captured in military operations, mostly in Afghanistan.
Because the facility is in Cuba, the administration has argued that detainees there are not covered by rights and protections afforded to those in U.S. prisons.
Human rights advocates and foreign leaders have repeatedly called for its closure, and the prison is regarded by many as proof of U.S. double standards on fundamental freedoms in the war on terrorism.
Some of the detainees come from countries that are U.S. allies, including Britain, Saudi Arabia and Australia. Each of those governments raised complaints about the conditions or duration of detentions, or about the possibility that detainees might face death sentences.
Rice has said she would like to see Guantanamo closed if a safe alternative could be found. She said during a trip to Spain this month that "the United States doesn't have any desire to be the world's jailer."
"I don't think anyone wants to see Guantanamo open one day longer than it is needed. But I also suspect nobody wants to see a number of dangerous people simply released out onto the streets," she said.
On Thursday, two Democratic lawmakers, Rep. Alcee Hastings of Florida and Sen. Benjamin Cardin of Maryland, told a human rights commission that Guantanamo must be closed if the United States is to regain credibility and authority on human rights.
"The damage done to the United States goes beyond undermining our status as a global leader on human rights," Cardin said. "Our policies and practices regarding Guantanamo and other aspects of our detainee policies have undermined our authority to engage in the effective counter-terrorism measures that are necessary for the very security of this country."
Officials say that Bush, who also has said he wants to close the facility as soon as possible, is keenly aware of its shortcomings.
His wife, Laura, and mother, Barbara, along with Rice and longtime adviser Karen Hughes, head of the public diplomacy office at the State Department, have told him that Guantanamo is a blot on the U.S. record abroad, particularly in the Muslim world and among European allies.
Bush has said the United States first has to determine what to do with the detainees there. The administration says some countries have refused to accept terror suspects from their territory.
Earlier this month, former Secretary of State Colin Powell called for the immediate closure of the prison, saying it posed an untenable foreign policy risk and was irreparably harming the U.S. image abroad.