WASHINGTON — Staring at a January deadline, the Obama administration is debating between two dramatically different schemes for putting Guantanamo Bay detainees on trial: big-city courtrooms in the nation's capital, New York and Virginia — or a one-of-a-kind superjail in the Midwest.
And the participants, working in tense but amicable secret meetings, know the final and politically volatile decision about where to try detainees will be made by President Barack Obama, who set the deadline for closing the prison on the military base in Cuba to meet a campaign promise.
Dozens of Guantanamo Bay detainee cases have been referred to federal prosecutors for possible criminal trials in those Eastern Seaboard locations, officials said Monday, as the Justice Department, Pentagon and national security officials also weigh whether to hold virtually all Guantanamo-related civilian and military trials at a Midwestern prison in Michigan or Kansas.
The administration could decide that rather than bring the detainees to trial in a number of cities, it will instead bring prosecutors and judges with terrorism experience to one site in the Midwest for trial, which would pose other serious logistical hurdles. Or they could settle on a combination of the plans.
Obama administration officials, speaking to the Associated Press on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss internal deliberations, said Attorney General Eric Holder met privately last week with the chief federal prosecutors in four East Coast districts to discuss the preparations for possible indictments and trials.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said no decisions had been made on where to transfer Guantanamo detainees.
Officials said the districts reviewing Guantanamo cases are Washington; the Eastern District of Virginia, which has a courthouse in Alexandria; the Southern District of New York, which is based in lower Manhattan; and the Eastern District of New York, which is based in Brooklyn.
The administration is also considering relocating the whole Guantanamo trial process to a more remote location. Several senior administration officials said they are considering a soon-to-be-shuttered state maximum security prison in Michigan and the military penitentiary at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., as possible locations for a heavily guarded site to hold the suspected 229 al-Qaida, Taliban and foreign fighters now jailed at Guantanamo.