The White House is considering whether to detain international terrorism suspects at a U.S. military base in Afghanistan, senior U.S. officials said, an option that would lead to another prison with the same purpose as Guantanamo Bay, which it has promised to close.
The idea, which would require approval by President Obama, already has drawn resistance from within the government. Army Gen. Stanley A. McCrystal, the top commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, and other senior officials strongly oppose it, fearing that expansion of the U.S. detention facility at Bagram air base could make the job of stabilizing the country even tougher. That the option of detaining suspects captured outside Afghanistan at Bagram is being contemplated reflects a recognition by the Obama administration that it has few other places to hold and interrogate foreign prisoners without giving them access to the U.S. court system, the officials said.
Without a location outside the United States for sending prisoners, the administration must resort to turning the suspects over to foreign governments, bringing them to the U.S. or even killing them. In one case last year, U.S. special operations forces killed an Al Qaeda-linked suspect named Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan in a helicopter attack in southern Somalia rather than trying to capture him, a U.S. official said. Officials had debated trying to take him alive but decided against doing so in part because of uncertainty over where to hold him, the official added.
McCrystal said last week that the prison would be handed over to the Afghans in January. It is unlikely the U.S. would send terrorism suspects to Bagram once it is under the control of the Afghan government. As a result, some officials in Washington want to slow down the hand-over, at least until other options are examined.
The Obama administration is hoping to buy a state prison in Thomson, Ill., to turn it into a federal facility to house some terrorism suspects. But the administration has indicated that any such suspects held at the prison would be limited to detainees facing prosecution and those currently at Guantanamo. Thomson is not viewed as an option for suspected terrorists captured outside the U.S. because of near-certain resistance from Congress and the public. "Thomson is there to clean up a mistake, not to serve as a permanent model for future detentions," said Tom Malinowski, the Washington advocacy director of Human Rights Watch. In addition, any suspected terrorist held inside the U.S. would probably have the right to challenge his detention in federal courts. Bagram, for now, is outside the reach of U.S. courts.