Different U.S. states weighed to host Gitmo trials
By Devlin Barrett
Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON — Staring at a January deadline, the Obama administration is debating between two dramatically different schemes for putting Guantanamo Bay detainees on trial: big-city courtrooms or a one-of-a-kind superjail.
And the participants, working in tense but amicable secret meetings, know the final and politically volatile decision about where to try detainees will be made by President Barack Obama, who set the deadline for closing the prison on the military base in Cuba to meet a campaign promise.
Dozens of Guantanamo Bay detainee cases have been referred to federal prosecutors for possible criminal trials in eastern locations like New York, Washington and Virginia, officials told The Associated Press on Monday, as the Justice Department, Pentagon and national security officials also weigh whether to hold virtually all Guantanamo-related civilian and military trials at a Midwestern prison in Michigan or Kansas.
The administration could decide that rather than bring the detainees to trial in a number of cities, it will instead bring prosecutors and judges with terrorism experience to one site in the Midwest for trial, which would pose other serious logistical hurdles. Or they could settle on a combination of the plans.
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 prosecutors in four East Coast districts to discuss the preparations for possible indictments and trials.
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.
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 working together to review 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 reviewing Guantanamo cases are: Washington; the Eastern District of Virginia, which has a courthouse in Alexandria; the Southern District of New York, which is based in lower Manhattan; and the Eastern District of New York, which is based in the New York City borough of Brooklyn.
Sarah Mendelson of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who has supported detainee trials in civilian courts, said those districts include the locations of the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks and have tried terror suspects in the past.
"Those districts have a fair amount of experience prosecuting international terrorist cases," said Mendelson, adding that prosecutors in those offices have long sought to tackle these difficult cases.
The administration is also considering relocating the whole Guantanamo trial process to a more remote location. Several senior administration officials said they are considering a soon-to-be-shuttered state maximum security prison in Michigan and the military penitentiary at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, as possible locations for a heavily guarded site to hold the suspected 229 al-Qaida, Taliban and foreign fighters now jailed at Guantanamo.
Already, some are against the idea.
Rep. Peter Hoekstra, the senior Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, vowed to oppose any attempt to bring Guantanamo prisoners to Michigan.
"They are some of the most dangerous people in the world who pose a major threat to U.S. national security," Hoekstra said in a statement issued Monday. "We need to preserve jobs in Michigan, but turning our state into a terrorist penal colony is not how to attract new families and business investment."
On the other hand, workers at the Standish Maximum Security Prison in Michigan said they would welcome detainees with open arms, to save their jobs.
The president has said some detainees will be tried in civilian courts, some in military commissions. Others, he said, will be held without trial because they are considered too dangerous to risk acquittal and the evidence against them cannot be used in court, either because of flaws in how it was obtained or secrets it would reveal.
The proposed Midwest facility would operate as a hybrid prison system jointly operated by the Justice Department, the military and the Homeland Security Department.
Such a plan would also require a multimillion-dollar 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. Also, it would be a strain to find enough jurors and grand jurors in those rural communities for dozens of terrorism trials. And judges and prosecutors with experience in such cases would have to be relocated there.
But trying detainees on the U.S. mainland 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.
Michigan's governor, Jennifer Granholm, said in a statement Monday that until federal authorities address her concerns about the "homeland security implications" of the move, "she is not in favor of moving detainees to Michigan," and would oppose efforts to do so.
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.
Associated Press Writers Lara Jakes and Pamela Hess contributed to this report.