WASHINGTON – The Defense Department is trying to lighten the detainee load at the U.S. Naval Station in Guantanamo Bay (search).
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld (search) is apparently pushing the State Department to increase pressure on some unresponsive foreign capitals to take custody of some of their nationals who are held at the base. Pentagon officials confirmed to FOX News that the Pentagon's objective is to move some prisoners back to their countries of origin, so far as the transfers are in line with U.S. policy and procedures.
The New York Times reported Friday that the Pentagon was trying to transfer those detainees to countries such as Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Yemen.
Officials confirmed to FOX News on Friday that Rumsfeld has issued a memorandum on the subject, but they strongly denied the Pentagon is involved in any process that would amount to rendition — which is the transfer of captives to countries where they could be subject to torture during interrogations.
In making these transfers, the U.S. government negotiates conditions. Sometimes this means requiring that the detainee be held by their home country, and, in some cases, seeking protections regarding his treatment while imprisoned there.
About 540 people from 40 countries are being held as enemy combatants at Guantanamo, many of them prisoners from the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan that followed the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. Already, 211 Guantanamo detainees have been released. This includes 146 who were freed outright plus 62 who were transferred to the control of their home government. At one time the number of detainees at Guantanamo Bay hit more than 700. Nearly all the cases at the Cuba base have been reviewed by a special three-member panel.
Not all detainees are eligible for transfer because some, if freed, would remain a threat to U.S. interests, officials said. Several already freed from Guantanamo have returned to terrorist groups, they said.
Some are also still supplying useful intelligence to interrogators, officials said.
The Defense Department can't transfer prisoners on its own. It will need to consult with other departments, such as Justice, before moving them.
The Guantanamo Bay operation was recently credited in a Defense Department report for strong leadership and oversight that resulted in very few cases of relatively minor abuse.
But detentions at the base have become something of a legal burden for the Defense Department. The status of the detainees has been in question since the U.S. military began holding them at Guantanamo in 2002. U.S. courts, over the objections of the Bush administration, have found the detainees may challenge their incarcerations before a judge.
The government has argued that the detainees are "enemy combatants" (search) — a classification that includes anyone who supported Afghanistan's ousted Taliban regime or the Al Qaeda terrorist network — and are neither entitled to the same legal protections as prisoners of war under the Geneva Conventions, nor to legal protections provided to other foreigners held on U.S. soil.
Still, the military has instituted several review procedures at Guantanamo to examine whether each detainee is still properly held. Some detainees have been ordered freed under these procedures.
FOX News' Greg Kelly, Nick Simeone and The Associated Press contributed to this report.