GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba – Guantanamo's commander believes that the prison on this base won't close anytime soon after President-elect Barack Obama takes office.
Rear Adm. David Thomas said he expects "rigorous debate" in America before the 250 detainees are flown out, pouring cold water on speculation that the military's offshore prison might close within days after Obama is sworn in on Jan. 20.
"The hard part, the important part to get ready is where you're going to put the detainees, and the legal process that you intend to use to continue any sort of prosecution or resolution of their cases," Thomas told reporters Tuesday night. "The easy part is taking them from JTF-Guantanamo and putting them on an airplane."
The chances of the military completing another war-crimes trial at Guantanamo before Obama takes office were all but eliminated on Wednesday, however, as a judge suspended proceedings against a detainee whose case had been set for early January.
Army Col. Stephen Henley indefinitely delayed the case against Mohammed Jawad, an Afghan whose trial was the last one scheduled before President George W. Bush leaves office.
Jawad faces charges including attempted murder for allegedly throwing a grenade that injured two U.S. soldiers and their interpreter in Kabul in 2002.
The judge had thrown out a confession that he said was tainted by death threats against Jawad and his family by Afghan interrogators. Prosecutors are appealing the ruling to a military review court in Washington.
Once that panel issues its ruling, Henley said either side can ask him to set a new trial date. But Obama has said he opposes the tribunal system, raising doubt that any trials will take place at Guantanamo after he takes office.
Thomas, who took command six months ago of the Joint Task Force that runs the prison camps, said no member of Obama's transition team has visited the base or is scheduled to do so.
"When there is an order to close it, we will close it," Thomas said in a discussion with U.S. and foreign reporters on the base for pretrial hearings for five men charged with carrying out the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
The defendants in the Sept. 11 case wrote a letter on Nov. 4 — the day Obama was elected president — saying they wanted to confess, presumably to plead guilty and face the death penalty.
At least two of the men, including the self-described mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, have said they want to be executed by the United States to achieve martyrdom. Many observers at the hearing say the defendants may be rushing toward a death sentence before Obama takes office and shuts down the war-crimes trials, as the president-elect has vowed to do.
Thomas said he did not want to "speculate" whether it was significant that the detainees' letter was written on election day. Polls had showed for days that Obama had a strong lead ahead of Republican candidate John McCain, and Thomas noted that the defendants could have kept abreast through their attorneys and newspapers in English and Arabic the prisoners see daily.