U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates is has ordered his staff to prepare a plan for closing the Guantanamo Bay detention center, to be ready for possible implementation soon after President-elect Barack Obama takes office January 20.
Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell announced the effort during a news conference on Thursday.
"He has asked his team for a proposal on how to shut it down, what would be required, specifically, to close it and move the detainees from that facility, while at the same time, of course, ensuring that we protect the American people with some very dangerous characters," Morrell said.
Secretary Gates, who President-elect Obama has asked to stay in office, has long wanted to shut down the detention center, but a variety of factors have prevented its closure.
Among the concerns: Security experts worry some of the detainees might return to violence if they are released. Legal experts are concerned terrorists could be acquitted by civilian U.S. courts because the evidence against them is too sensitive to presented in public, or because it may have been obtained through torture. And local officials in several parts of the United States have said they do not want the detainees brought to prisons in their areas.
But the Pentagon spokesman, Geoff Morrell, says Secretary Gates wants a fresh look at the issues for two reasons.
"Fundamentally, the motivation for the secretary in this respect is not just the fact that he believes closure is the right thing, but that the president-elect has made it perfectly clear throughout the course of the campaign that he wishes to address this issue early on in his administration," Morrell said. "And so the secretary wants to be prepared to assist him in trying to figure out a solution to this thorny problem."
Secretary Gates has said he believes a new law is needed to enable the government to safely bring the detainees into the United States. He told a television interviewer Wednesday he believes there are alternatives to Guantanamo, and that dealing with the issue "will be a high priority" for the Obama Administration.
Human rights groups have long called for the Guantanamo center to be closed, and for remaining detainees to be released or tried in regular U.S. civilian or military courts. The fact that some detainees have been held without trial for seven years, with no end in sight, the mistreatment of the detainees early in the center's existence and its status in a kind of legal limbo on a U.S. military base on foreign soil have all fueled human rights concerns and hurt the U.S. image in the world.
President Bush has also said he wanted to close the center. But in October, Secretary Gates said even with the president's support the effort had failed. Now, the Pentagon spokesman says the secretary wants to be ready to try again under President Obama, and possibly very soon.
"There was a specific request from the secretary to, whatever we have done, let's update it, let's improve it, let's get it ready so we could deal with this if called upon as soon as the president-elect takes office," Morrell said.
The United States has released more than 500 detainees from Guantanamo, but there are still about 250 there. Officials say many of them can be released if countries can be found to take them. And they want to put several dozen on trial in special military commissions. But officials also say there are some detainees they can not put on trial, but who are too dangerous to be released.