WASHINGTON -- Defense Secretary Robert Gates has scaled back a planned compound for war-crimes trials, telling Congress he thought the initial Pentagon plan for a $100 million facility was "ridiculous."
The trials are planned to begin this summer for an unspecified number -- likely between 60 and 80 -- of the approximately 390 terrorism suspects held at a US prison compound at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. No charges of war crimes have been filed against them.
Among the suspects expected to face trial are 14 "high-value" detainees who were recently transferred from secret CIA custody. They include Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the suspected mastermind of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and Abu Zubaydah, believed to be a link between Osama bin Laden and many Al Qaeda cells.
The initial plans for a Guantanamo Bay courthouse compound, designed to accommodate as many as 1,200 people, called for three courtrooms to allow for multiple trials to be conducted simultaneously, and a separate high-security area to house the detainees facing trial, plus other support facilities.
Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, a leading critic of the original construction plan, asked Gates at a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing Tuesday why the administration's latest budget requests did not include the $100 million. The plan was drafted before Gates replaced Donald H. Rumsfeld as Defense Department chief in December.
"It seemed to me that by the time I received it, the request was, I think, for $92 million and I basically said, 'This is ridiculous,' " he said, adding he was being "more candid than I probably should."
"I said, 'We'll be handed our hat if we go up to the Hill for $100 million for these courthouses,' " Gates added.
Human rights groups and foreign governments have called on the Bush administration to close Guantanamo, saying detainees are being held illegally. The construction plan stirred a new round of criticism.
Feinstein had questioned the Pentagon's decision last fall to invoke emergency powers to bypass normal congressional reviews of its construction plan. In her exchange with Gates on Tuesday she thanked him for abandoning the original $100 million plan.
The administration recently drafted new rules for the trials under the Military Commissions Act after the Supreme Court had declared last year that previous efforts to try Guantanamo detainees were unconstitutional.
Instead of building the court compound as originally proposed, Gates said, the Pentagon will use temporary buildings "like we've used in Iraq," and they will be ready for the first trials, likely to begin in July. Some of the additional facilities will be paid for by the $1.6 million that is included in the current budget request for facility upgrades, he added.
The total cost will be "a tenth of what we were originally contemplating," he said. He did not cite a specific dollar amount.
When asked yesterday about the remarks by Gates, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said the department was still putting the new plan together and was not ready to release all the details.
He said the secretary's idea was to take a more "expeditionary" approach, making the expansion less permanent and less costly while still accommodating the trials.