U.S. hopes to share prison with Afghanistan

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The Obama administration wants to retain the ability to hold terrorism suspects from other countries at its largest prison in Afghanistan, even after it hands control of the facility to the Afghan government next year, according to U.S. officials.

If Afghan officials agree, it would give the administration a place to interrogate terrorism suspects captured in countries such as Somalia or Yemen. President Obama made a high-profile pledge to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, after taking office last year. But that would leave the administration without a lockup for those suspected of plotting attacks against the United States.

Administration officials have looked in recent months to the U.S.-run prison at Bagram air base north of Kabul as a place to hold suspects captured elsewhere. But Afghan officials have long demanded they be given control of the prison, and the Obama administration has agreed. Last month, Obama reiterated that promise.

Now, administration officials are developing a compromise plan to hand over control, but also carve out a section of the prison for non-Afghan detainees who would remain under U.S. custody, according to a senior U.S. official.

The proposal is still in early stages of development. It is the subject of quiet discussions among senior officials, and has not been submitted to the National Security Council or to Afghan officials. Afghan officials did not respond to calls seeking their views.

The issue encompasses the legal and ethical quandaries that continue to engulf U.S. detention policy. Under a recent U.S. appeals court decision, the prison at Bagram air base is outside the reach of federal courts. The ruling means that prisoners held there cannot challenge their detention or demand legal rights, unlike detainees at Guantanamo.

The senior U.S. official, who along with others spoke on condition of anonymity because the plan is not final, said Bagram remains the best option for holding future terrorism suspects captured elsewhere in the world. The official said a final decision on using Bagram probably would be made only after U.S. forces capture a suspect in an area with few detention options and officials decide that interrogations are necessary.

Terrorism suspects from Afghanistan or Pakistan probably would be sent to Bagram as well, but be held under Afghan jurisdiction, they said.

Officials said no plans have been approved to send militants from outside Afghanistan to Bagram.

“No decision has been made to house international terrorism suspects at Bagram,” said Maj. Tanya Bradsher, a Pentagon spokeswoman.

Bradsher added that the U.S. was not considering transferring any of the fewer than 200 detainees remaining at Guantanamo to Bagram.

There are about 800 detainees at Bagram. Fewer than 10 are detainees from outside Afghanistan or the Pakistan border region.

The U.S. is scheduled to hand over the Bagram prison early next year. Afghans chafe at having a foreign power detain their citizens. Giving Kabul formal control would meet a key demand by President Hamid Karzai, and could help reduce tensions created by U.S. control.

Once the Afghan government takes control of the prison from the U.S. military, U.S. interrogation rules — including prohibitions on the use of physical force against detainees contained in the Army Field Manual — no longer will technically apply to the overall prison population, Bradsher said.

“Detainees will be under the exclusive custody and control of the government of Afghanistan and subject to its laws,” Bradsher said. She said that although the facility would be under the control of the Afghan government, U.S. forces would remain in a “mentoring and supporting role.”

But other officials said that if the United States retained control of a part of the facility, the field manual would probably continue to govern the interrogation of any prisoners who remained in U.S. custody.

Despite the insistence that no final decision has been made on Bagram, officials note that other options for holding terrorism suspects are being cut off.

The current version of the Defense authorization bill, a spending plan that has been approved by the House of Representatives and is being debated by the Senate, restricts the Obama administration from renovating a state prison in Illinois to hold detainees from Guantanamo.

Although primarily intended to hold such detainees, the prison in Thomson, Ill., also could have been used to hold other non-American terrorism suspects. Administration officials still plan to someday use Thomson, but will not be able to quickly modify the prison to hold Guantanamo detainees.

The House Armed Services Committee voted to require the Obama administration to seek congressional approval before redesigning the prison in Illinois.

In the past, U.S. military officials in Afghanistan have opposed bringing additional detainees from outside the war zone to Bagram, fearful it could delay the handoff of the prison and erode relations between Washington and Kabul.

The Obama administration is building up the number of troops in Afghanistan to nearly 100,000, in hopes of stabilizing the country, and with plans to start bringing them home next year. A key part of the strategy is to strengthen Karzai’s government, but relations have been testy, particularly after elections last year that were tainted by fraud.

The compromise plan being discussed by officials in Washington preserves Afghan control and meets the need of other military and intelligence officials for a secure overseas prison at which to interrogate suspects.

Senior Defense officials have expressed frustration that the U.S. lacks an overseas prison where new terrorism suspects can be held. Some Defense officials believe the U.S. is often pushed into trying to kill militants, instead of attempting to capture and question them. Some detainees can be held by friendly governments in the countries in which they are captured. But in such situations, American interrogators do not have control of the suspects.

Allowing the U.S. to hold detainees at the prison at Bagram, known to the military as the Parwan detention facility, would give American interrogators an ability to question suspected terrorists directly, an approach considered more effective.

Human rights organizations are likely to view the creation of another detention facility outside the reach of U.S. law as a betrayal by the Obama administration.

The administration earned accolades from liberal groups after announcing steps to close Guantanamo early in the administration and end the Bush administration’s use of harsh interrogation tactics.

Since then, however, human rights organizations increasingly have criticized the White House for reviving military commissions and wavering over federal trials for the Sept. 11 masterminds.

Christi Parsons and David S. Cloud of the Washington bureau contributed to this report.