Defense Secretary Robert Gates has ordered aides to draw up plans for closing the "war on terror" prison at Guantanamo, a declared priority for President-elect Barack Obama, a spokesman said Thursday.
Gates wanted to be ready in case Obama decides to take action on Guantanamo soon after assuming office next month, said Geoff Morrell, the Pentagon press secretary.
"He has asked his team for a proposal on how to shut it down, what will be required specifically to close it and move the detainees from that facility, and at the same time protect the American people from dangerous terrorists," he said.
"The request has been made, his team is working on it so he can be prepared to assist the president-elect should he wish to address this very early in his tenure," Morrell said.
The prison, which currently has about 250 inmates, was opened in early 2002 at a remote US naval base on the southeastern tip of Cuba as a way of holding detainees beyond the reach of US courts.
Among those held there are Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged operational mastermind of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, and other alleged senior leaders of Al-Qaeda and other extremist groups.
Prisoners captured in Afghanistan and Pakistan during and after the US-led overthrow of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan were flown to Guantanamo in orange jumpsuits and hoods, and held initially in primitive conditions.
Since then, nearly 800 detainees from around the Muslim world and Europe have done time in Guantanamo, which grew over time into a state-of-the-art maximum security complex.
Allegations of abuses, the use of harsh interrogation practices and indefinite detentions of "enemy combatants" without charges made it a symbol to many around the world of US excesses in the "war on terror."
"I think we can provide alternatives to it," Gates said in an interview that aired late Wednesday on PBS television.
"I would like to see it closed. And I think it will be a high priority for the new administration," he said.
But he said closing the prison will require passage of laws to prevent dangerous detainees from being released in the United States.
"As an example, you probably want something in legislation that says if somebody is freed from Guantanamo, they don’t have an automatic right to asylum in the United States," he said.
"Some of these people are very dangerous. And we don’t want them coming here into the United States," he said.
Another impediment to quickly closing the detention center has been getting countries to take prisoners that are no longer considered a threat, Gates said.
"It partly depends on statute. It partly depends on how quickly we can return some of these people — can persuade other countries to take some of these prisoners back," he said.
Some 60 prisoners are still awaiting transfer or release to their home countries, despite US efforts to repatriate them to reduce the prison population.
The fate of a special legal regime created for trying terrorist suspects before military tribunals is another major unanswered question awaiting the new administration.
Obama suggested during the campaign he would close down the military trials, but the Pentagon has pushed ahead with them, including that of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four others who have vowed to plead guilty to capital charges. If convicted, they could face the death penalty.