Ruling may render Guantanamo moot

The Bush administration may not be legally required to shut down its detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. But now there appears to be little legal reason to keep it open.

The Supreme Court's ruling on detainee rights Thursday eliminated the main reason for putting foreign prisoners in an offshore facility to begin with: to keep them out of U.S. courts, where they could more effectively challenge their imprisonment.

The ruling reignited debate in Washington over whether it's now time to close Guantanamo and remove a symbol that has been internationally controversial since it opened.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates was among administration officials making that argument Friday, and the Pentagon has scouted options for transferring the detainees to American military prisons.

But the debate may be moot, because President Bush's opinion has not changed.

“Given the history, I think there's likely to be intense debate within the administration over this question,” said Matthew Waxman, a former Pentagon detainee affairs official who is now a law professor at Columbia University. “Will it happen in this administration? I hope so, but I'm pessimistic.”

Nevertheless, attorneys for many of the 270 detainees plan to inundate the courts with petitions. The result will be dozens of court hearings that will force the administration to make public much of its evidence in a process it will find difficult to control.

The new civilian proceedings will differ dramatically from the original detention hearings held at Guantanamo, said Charles Stimson, who also has overseen detainee affairs at the Pentagon.

In civilian courts, detainees will have lawyers, and can present evidence and question witnesses. In some cases, evidence will be excluded in a U.S. court, such as information obtained through coercion or classified material.

“The administration is going to have to roll up its sleeves and pull together the evidence against the detainees,” said Stimson, now at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington think tank.

Gates' efforts to close the prison were headed off by the Justice Department, which said that moving the prisoners to the U.S. would give them broad rights to appeal to civilian courts.

Bush himself on Thursday appeared to signal his administration would look to limit the effect of the ruling's impact on detainee policies, much as it has in the past.

In a news conference in Rome, he added that he might seek new legislation to mitigate the court's decision.

Los Angeles Times staff writer Julian E. Barnes contributed.