Pentagon chief eyes alternative prisons for Guantanamo detainees

U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter holds a news conference at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia August 20, 2015. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

By David Alexander WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Teams working on plans to close the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay have been visiting detention facilities in the United States to identify sites where war prisoners could be held long term, Defense Secretary Ash Carter said on Thursday. Carter said Defense Department assessment teams had visited the U.S. Army detention facility at Leavenworth, Kansas, and would soon go to the U.S. Naval Consolidated Brig at Charleston, South Carolina, to look at what investments might be needed to make them suitable for holding Guantanamo detainees. The U.S. defense chief said other prisons also would be assessed in the coming weeks, providing the administration with information needed for a broad recommendation to Congress on closing Guantanamo. The Defense Department effort already has roused local opposition. Republican South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley told a news conference on Thursday, "We are not going to allow any terrorists" to be housed at the Navy brig in Charleston. Senator Pat Roberts, a Kansas Republican, has threatened to hold up the nomination of the next Army secretary if the administration goes ahead with plans to move the detainees to Leavenworth, the Roll Call newspaper reported last week. Closing Guantanamo prison has been a priority for President Barack Obama since his early days in office, but his effort to close the facility has been blocked by opponents in Congress and hampered by the practical problem of dealing with the inmates. Some senior congressional leaders have advised Obama to develop a complete plan for closing Guantanamo, including dealing with the prisoners, and submit it to Congress as a way to break the stalemate and move toward a resolution. Guantanamo houses 116 detainees in the U.S. war against al Qaeda and affiliated groups. Fifty-two are being considered for release if U.S. authorities can find a country to take them. As many as 50 prisoners fall into a second category of detainees considered too dangerous to release, a defense official said on condition of anonymity. If the military is to fulfill Obama's pledge to close Guantanamo prison, it will have to find an alternative place to hold those inmates. "With respect to Guantanamo, I see it exactly the way the president does," Carter told reporters, calling the prison a "rallying point for jihadi propaganda." "It's expensive for this department and not something that the president wants to leave to his successor," he added. "I think that is a very, very correct position. I support it entirely." (Reporting by David Alexander; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)