WASHINGTON – The Pentagon plans to release some terror suspects from prison in Cuba because they are no longer threats and have no more intelligence information to offer, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Tuesday.
"There are some people likely to come out of the other end of the chute," he said, without disclosing how many would be released.
Some of the 598 men at the high-security prison built at Guantanamo Bay Naval Station have been held for nearly a year. They were first rounded up during the air war that opened the military campaign in Afghanistan, then transferred from Afghanistan to Cuba in January.
Until now, the only prisoners who have gotten out of the facility were a man who was mentally ill and an American moved to the United States for continued detention, officials said.
Rumsfeld said authorities were screening the prisoners to make sure they were not candidates for prosecution, no longer of any intelligence value and not threats to the United States and its allies. He didn't say when they might be released, but other sources said on condition of anonymity that it could happen within days.
The first batch to be released includes "a relatively small number" of men, Rumsfeld said, adding that he didn't know their nationalities.
At least some are expected to be sent home to Pakistan. The government there, which has been a major U.S. ally in the counter-terror war, says a visit to the prison turned up a number of Pakistanis who do not represent a threat to the United States.
The government has asked that the men be sent back.
"We vetted them and gave our assessment ... that some of the detainees did not pose a threat," Asad Hayauddin, spokesman for the Pakistan Embassy in Washington, said Tuesday.
The prisoners in Guantanamo are reported to include 58 Pakistanis, about 100 Saudi Arabians and a dozen Kuwaitis. The United States is holding men from some 42 countries who it has labeled as enemy combatants, saying it may legally hold them until the end of hostilities.
The United States hasn't made clear whether that means the end of the campaign in Afghanistan or the entire global war, which is expected to go on for years.
It's unclear how many other countries have sought release or custody of their nationals, though Kuwait has urged the U.S. government to expedite proceedings against its dozen citizens.
The U.S. government has said for months that some prisoners might eventually be prosecuted, others released to other countries for prosecution, others held indefinitely.
Though rules for military tribunals were announced seven months ago, no prisoners have been identified as a possible candidates for such trials.
Officials said they were busy with the task of interrogating prisoners for information that could help prevent future attacks and catch other suspects.
The process has been to first determine whether the prisoners had any more information, then whether they might be charged with a crime by the United States or another country, and then whether they should be held as future dangers, Rumsfeld said at a press conference with Gen. Richard Myers, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
"If you don't want them for intelligence and you don't want them for law enforcement and you don't need to keep them off the street, then let's be rid of them," Rumsfeld said, adding that a prisoner could be transferred to another country if that country wanted to hold him for one of those reasons.
Myers seemed to indicate that he didn't know if that was the case with any of the men to be released.
"I know what we decided — that we were willing to turn them back." Myers said. "And whether the other countries would set them free, they may have a process they have to go through."
One official said that for safety reasons, no transfer will be announced until it is completed.
Officials fear Al Qaeda will track down anyone who is released and try to get information from them on such things as U.S. interrogation methods, security procedures, details of other detainees and potential weaknesses in security at Guantanamo.
Asked if they were being handed over to another government's control or set free, Rumsfeld said, "We certainly would either hand them to a government's control or we would have talked to the government, and the government would have advised us that they did not need to have control, in which case they would be freed."