Panetta testifies that bin Laden, if captured, could be sent to Cuba

By Eileen Sullivan
Associated Press / February 17, 2011

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WASHINGTON — What would the government do if Osama bin Laden, the FBI’s most-wanted terrorist for more than a decade, were captured?

Discussion over that question, which yesterday bounced from Capitol Hill to the White House, is still mostly an academic exercise because there is no suggestion the military is any closer to finding or capturing bin Laden, believed to be hiding in Pakistan.

President Obama’s administration has maintained that criminal courts were best equipped to handle even the most serious terror cases. But when faced with that question yesterday during a Senate hearing, CIA Director Leon Panetta said the administration probably would send bin Laden to the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

That suggests that, at least under current law, bin Laden would not be transferred to US soil to be tried in the civilian court system. Congress last year ordered that no federal money could be spent to ship Guantanamo detainees to the US mainland. Bin Laden was indicted in the Sept. 11 attacks and could stand trial in New York. Panetta’s remarks indicate that given the choice, Obama would opt to use the Bush administration policy that Obama has long criticized.

National Intelligence Director James Clapper told senators that if bin Laden were caught, there probably would be a debate about whether to try him.

These plans were not echoed by the White House.

“The president remains committed to closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay, because as our military commanders have made clear, it’s a national security priority to do so,’’ spokesman Jay Carney said. “I’m not going to speculate about what, you know, would happen if we were to capture Osama bin Laden.’’

Last year, Attorney General Eric Holder deflected a similar question, saying that he hoped the United States will capture and interrogate bin Laden, but that he did not expect the Al Qaeda leader would be taken alive.

The varied answers from Obama administration officials show that nearly 10 years after the worst terror attack on US soil, there is still not a clear message for what to do with the people behind it. So far, no one has been prosecuted for the attacks.

Panetta and Clapper offered their plans in response to a question from the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Saxby Chambliss of Georgia.