If the U.S. captured Osama bin Laden or other senior Al Qaeda leaders, they would probably be imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay, CIA Director Leon E. Panetta said in his first public acknowledgment that the controversial U.S. military prison in Cuba might be used to hold future detainees.
Bin Laden and Al Qaeda's No. 2 leader, Ayman Zawahiri, both of whom are believed to be hiding in Pakistan, would probably be moved quickly to the U.S. air base at Bagram, Afghanistan, for questioning and eventually moved, "probably to Guantanamo," Panetta told the Senate Intelligence Committee on Wednesday.
Most U.S. officials consider it unlikely that Bin Laden or Zawahiri will be captured alive, but Panetta's comments appeared to describe a scenario the administration is considering in the event they or other senior Al Qaeda leaders are taken into custody.
After Panetta's comments, other administration officials rushed to reaffirm that President Obama was still committed to closing the prison, though Republicans in Congress are opposed.
But the suggestion that the U.S. might send prisoners to Guantanamo and detain them at Bagram for questioning was criticized by human rights groups, who described Panetta's comments as a worrisome sign that the administration was backing away from its pledge to close Guantanamo and to rely more heavily on civilian courts to prosecute terrorism suspects.
"If this is the direction the administration is thinking of going, it is very disturbing," said Hina Shamsi, the director of the National Security Project at the American Civil Liberties Union. "Indefinite detention anywhere, whether at Guantanamo or Bagram, will only make us less safe and is inconsistent with our values."
There are 172 prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, and no new detainees have been sent there since 2008, during the George W. Bush administration.
By moving Al Qaeda leaders to Bagram at least temporarily, American officials would be able to deny them access to U.S. courts during questioning.
A U.S. appeals court decision in May upheld the administration position that Bagram is beyond the reach of U.S. courts, meaning prisoners could be interrogated there indefinitely before being moved to Guantanamo or into the civilian court system.
For the last year, the administration has been struggling to craft a policy about how it will handle terrorism suspects who are captured in the future.
There has been wide disagreement within the government on where to send a newly captured Al Qaeda member who the U.S. wants to question but lacks the evidence to prosecute. Intelligence officials emphasize the need to hold prisoners for long periods of interrogation, but law enforcement and other U.S. officials favor procedures that focus on prosecution as the main objective.
Several officials said a final policy was close to being completed.
Michael Vickers, the administration's nominee to be undersecretary of defense for intelligence, provided a glimpse into the debate during his confirmation hearing this week, telling lawmakers that the administration "is in the final stages" of establishing its detention policy.
He noted that in some cases, the U.S. can rely on other countries to hold suspected terrorists while giving the U.S. access to them for questioning. But "many countries are either incapable or unwilling" to take some detainees, and "we require some mechanism to be able to detain them ourselves."
Playing down the scenario outlined by Panetta, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told the same hearing that different departments and agencies would have to decide collectively whether to put Bin Laden or Zawahiri on trial in civilian courts or turn them over to the military for imprisonment at Guantanamo.
If the U.S. were "to capture either one of those two luminaries — if I can use that term — I think that that would probably be a matter of some interagency discussions as to, you know, what their ultimate disposition would be," Clapper said.
In a statement seeking to clarify Panetta's remarks, CIA spokesman George Little said that Panetta was not implying that a decision had been made about sending future Al Qaeda prisoners to Guantanamo.
"The director fully supports the president's commitment to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay because, as our military commanders have made clear, it's in our national security interest to do so," Little said.