WASHINGTON — FBI Director Robert Mueller told Congress on Wednesday that bringing Guantanamo Bay detainees to the United States could pose a number of risks, even if they were kept in maximum-security prisons. Responding to FBI concerns, Attorney General Eric Holder said the Obama administration would not put Americans at risk.
Testifying before the House Judiciary Committee, Mueller faced repeated questions about the prospect of transferring to the United States some of the 240 inmates currently held at the naval base in Cuba.
President Barack Obama has ordered the Guantanamo Bay detention center closed by January 2010, but that timetable may be in jeopardy. As Mueller testified, the Senate voted overwhelmingly to block funding for bringing detainees to the U.S., whether freed or imprisoned.
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Meanwhile, the Pentagon was preparing to release a long-awaited report detailing the number of Guantanamo detainees who had either returned to the battlefield or were suspected of returning after being released from the prison.
Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said the report, which was completed in late 2008, would mirror data released in January showing that 18 detainees had rejoined the fight. An additional 43 were suspected of returning to battle, the Pentagon said then, although it did not release any evidence or intelligence supporting its data.
The New York Times reported on its Web site Wednesday that an updated, and still-undisclosed Pentagon tally shows 74 detainees have returned to the fight. The newspaper did not break down the number by detainees who were confirmed and suspected of rejoining the battle.
Whitman would not confirm the 74 number Wednesday night, and the updated data was not immediately available.
"Even in our most careful assessments and decisions to transfer or release detainees, we know that some return to the fight," Whitman said.
At the start of Wednesday's hearing, Mueller was asked what concerns the FBI has about the release of Guantanamo detainees.
"The concerns we have about individuals who may support terrorism being in the United States run from concerns about providing financing, radicalizing others," Mueller said, as well as "the potential for individuals undertaking attacks in the United States."
"All of those are relevant concerns," Mueller said.
The FBI chief said he would not discuss specific individuals. He said there were also potential risks to putting detainees in maximum security prisons.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., whose district includes the World Trade Center site, then prodded Mueller to agree that such individuals could be safely kept in maximum security prisons in the United States.
Mueller balked at Nadler's suggestion, noting that in some instances imprisoned gang leaders have run their operations from inside prisons.
"It depends on the circumstances," Mueller said.
Asked about Mueller's comments, Attorney General Eric Holder said the government won't do anything with detainees "that's going to put the American people at risk."
"The concerns that have been expressed by the director, concerns expressed by other people, will all be taken into account," Holder said, adding that the administration is still working on the closure plan and he still believes they can meet the president's deadline in eight months.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs declined to respond directly to Mueller.
"The president hasn't decided where some of the detainees will be transferred. Those are decisions that the task forces are working on and that the president will lay out and discuss tomorrow," Gibbs told reporters.
Republicans have been criticizing Obama on the issue, and even fellow Democrats say they need to see a plan for closing Guantanamo before they can support the White House.
Republicans urged Mueller to take the FBI's concerns to the White House.
"No good purpose is served by allowing known terrorists, who trained at terrorist training camps, to come to the U.S. and live among us," said Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, the senior Republican on the committee. "Guantanamo Bay was never meant to be an Ellis Island."
Mueller was also asked if he had a solution for what to do with the detainees.
"I don't," Mueller answered. "It's a very difficult issue and people are honestly wrestling with what the best resolution is."