Panetta: If captured, bin Laden would be held at Guantánamo

The head of the CIA told senators on Wednesday that Osama bin Laden would be held at Guantánamo Bay prison if he were captured.

CIA Director Leon Panetta was asked by the ranking Republican on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Sen. Saxby Chambliss (Ga.), what would happen to the heads of al Qaeda — Osama bin Laden or Ayman al-Zawahiri — if they were captured.

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“The process would obviously involve — especially with the two targets that you just described — we would probably move them quickly into military jurisdiction at Bagram [air base in Afghanistan] for questioning and then eventually move them, probably to Guantánamo,” said Panetta.

Chambliss agreed with Panetta and said that while it might not be the most politically viable decision, moving bin Laden or al-Zawahiri to Guantánamo would be the best way to handle their capture from a security standpoint.

“We haven’t moved anybody to Guantánamo in years now, and obviously there has been a move toward closure of that facility, and I would tend to agree with you that’s probably the best place for anybody to go right now, the safest place from a national-security standpoint,” said Chambliss.

“Politically, it might not be popular ... I appreciate your honesty and straightforwardness about what you would do.”

President Obama ordered the Guantánamo Bay prison closed in 2009 after the facility was criticized for violating prisoners’ human rights. But the move toward closure came up against a torrent of political opposition, as many Republicans argued that the Cuba-based detention facility was the most secure and best-equipped place to house suspected terrorists.


Many members balked at the idea of housing the detainees at prisons in their districts. And in December, much to the disappointment of the Department of Justice (DoJ), Congress prohibited the use of any funds to transfer detainees from Guantánamo Bay to the U.S. The issue has subsequently been moved to the backburner for the White House, although in Obama's recent budget proposal he included nearly $67 million to reopen a closed Illinois prison — a move that could be the first step toward relocating Guantánamo detainees.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper seemed less sure on Wednesday that such “high-value targets” would find their way to Guantánamo so easily if captured. Instead, he told the senators that many of the U.S.’s intelligence and homeland security agencies would have a say as to how they should proceed.

“If we were to capture either one of those two luminaries — if I can use that term — I think there would probably be a matter of some interagency discussions … and whether they would be tried or not,” he said. “I’m sure if we did capture them that would be a subject of some discussion.”

Clapper said there were about 172 detainees at Guantánamo, most of whom are from Yemen.