By Jeremy Pelofsky and Ross Colvin
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Obama administration is close to selecting a location on U.S. soil to house some detainees from the controversial American military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, an administration official said on Saturday.
President Barack Obama has pledged to close the facility, which has been the target of international condemnation, by January 2010 but has faced legal, political and diplomatic difficulties that could make it hard to meet that deadline.
“We are doing everything we can to close it by the date,” the official said, declining further identification. “We are in the final stages of locating a secure facility in the U.S. where detainees can be held.”
The options for relocating the detainees have not been presented to Obama, meaning a decision was not likely imminent, a second administration official said. Republicans have criticized Obama for wanting to close Guantanamo since it is already set up for detention and trials.
There are still 223 detainees at the Guantanamo prison, set up by the Bush administration in 2002 to hold foreign terrorism suspects captured after U.S.-led forces invaded Afghanistan.
They include the suspected mastermind of the September 11, 2001, attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and the administration is weighing whether to charge some of them in U.S. federal or military courts on U.S. soil.
A decision on them is expected by mid-November. Obama has also said some detainees may not be able to be prosecuted and are too dangerous to be transferred overseas.
There are others at Guantanamo who have been cleared of wrongdoing and are awaiting transfers to their home countries or a safe haven. The administration has told Congress as many as eight detainees could go to the Pacific island of Palau next month.
Administration officials declined to identify the final options for housing the detainees in the United States, but the second administration official said two possibilities were likely out: a maximum-security prison in Standish, Michigan, set to close, and Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.
Other options could be the super-maximum security prison in Colorado, known as SuperMax, U.S. military brigs and other locations, the official said, declining to name them because of the firestorm that could ensue.
Earlier this year, Obama’s effort to close Guantanamo ran into fierce opposition both from Republicans and some of his fellow Democrats in Congress who wanted detailed plans before they would provide funding to close the Guantanamo prison.
“Americans and a bipartisan majority in Congress will continue to reject any effort to close Guantanamo until there is a plan that keeps Americans as safe or safer than keeping detainees in the secure detention center,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, said in a statement.
Most Democrats have backed the overall plan to close Guantanamo, pointing to international criticism of the detention camp and concerns the prison has provided a rallying cry to militant groups like al Qaeda.
They and administration officials have also stressed that more than 200 individuals convicted on terrorism charges are now housed in American prisons.
One detainee was transferred from Guantanamo to New York in June to face charges in a criminal court, Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, who has been accused of involvement in the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya that killed 224 people.
Earlier on Saturday, the Justice Department said it had transferred three Guantanamo detainees abroad, two to Ireland and one to Yemen. Since Obama took office in January, 17 detainees have been sent to countries overseas.
(Editing by Peter Cooney)