WASHINGTON — The Defense Department is drawing up plans to close the Guantanamo Bay military prison in anticipation that one of President-elect Barack Obama's first acts will be ordering the closure of the detention center associated with the abuse of terror suspects.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates "has asked his team for a proposal on how to shut (the detention center) 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 from some dangerous characters," Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell told reporters on Thursday.
The prison, built to hold suspected terrorists after the 2001 U.S.-led military intervention in Afghanistan, now houses about 250 detainees, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammad and others accused in connection with the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Obama, who's asked Gates to stay on as his defense secretary, has said that he wants to close the prison within two years of taking office on Jan. 20. Gates also has spoken publicly about the need to close the facility.
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"If this is one of the president-elect's first orders of business, the secretary wants to be prepared to help him as soon as possible," Morrell said. "The request (for a closure plan) has been made, his team is working on it so that he can be prepared to assist the president-elect should he wish to address this very early in his tenure."
In a telephone interview, Morrell said that Gates' study is "comprehensive" in nature, but is being conducted only inside the Pentagon and not in concert with the Justice Department or other government agencies.
"If and when the president-elect were to ask the secretary to help him solve this problem, we have done our homework and we are ready to present him with the best advice on the way forward," Morrell said. "We prepare for all sorts of contingencies, so there have been efforts previous to this one to devise solutions to this, should they be needed. The difference here is that the president-elect made it very clear throughout the campaign that this is something that he did want to confront" immediately.
Brooke Anderson, a spokeswoman for the Obama transition team, declined to comment, saying, "There is one president at a time, and we intend to respect that."
Guantanamo has been at the center of allegations that the Bush administration authorized the use of aggressive interrogation techniques that are considered torture under international law.
A Senate Armed Services Committee report published earlier this month blamed senior U.S. officials — including former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and retired Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — for the use of those techniques.
An investigation by McClatchy earlier this year found that few detainees were of any intelligence value, that many of them had minor or no involvement with the Taliban or al Qaida, and that some who weren't extremists became radicals at Guantanamo.
Shuttering the Guantanamo Bay facility involves complex issues, including what to do with the tribunals and finding alternative locations to hold detainees, including about 60 who've been approved for repatriation but whose governments don't want to take them.
Last week, Portugal said it was ready to resettle some of the inmates and urged its European Union partners to do so, as well, in a gesture of goodwill to the incoming Obama administration.
Vice President Dick Cheney, a key proponent of interrogation techniques such as waterboarding, which creates the sensation of drowning, said earlier this week in an ABC News interview that Guantanamo should be kept open indefinitely.
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