WASHINGTON — The Pentagon does not have a plan for long-term detention of captured Islamic State fighters, despite more aggressive operations against the terrorist group in Iraq, Syria and now Libya, the top U.S. special forces commander told Congress on Tuesday.
Before President Barack Obama took office, militants captured in Iraq and Afghanistan were sent to the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. But since Obama signed an executive order in 2009 to begin the process to close the facility, no new prisoners have been sent there.
At a hearing at the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., pressed Gen. Joseph Votel, commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, about what the United States plans to do if longer-term detention is necessary.
“You would agree that long-term interrogation was quite helpful, for example, in gathering the information we needed to get [Osama] Bin Laden?” Ayotte asked. “What do we do in a long-term setting? Do we know?”
Votel responded: “I would agree there is a requirement for long-term detention, senator.”
In the last seven years, it has been a priority of Obama’s administration to transfer all of the remaining detainees at Guantanamo Bay. Of the more than 800 people who were sent there at the height of the facility’s operations, 91 remain. Thirty-five of those prisoners are cleared to be moved to other countries. The rest likely will remain in U.S. custody permanently because it is believed they pose a threat to national security.
During the questioning Tuesday in the Senate, Votel said he did not know where long-term prisoners would be housed.
“That is a policy decision that I think is being debated,” he said.
Congress has resisted the White House plan to permanently close the prison at Guantanamo Bay. Lawmakers passed legislation prohibiting the president from using any funds to do so. A plan submitted by the White House last month to close the detention center and move the non-releaseable detainees to a federal prison in the United States has been stalled by congressional Republicans.
Now the Pentagon has started to face questions about what it plans to do with Islamic State fighters if a longer-term detention is necessary, as U.S. forces increase operations targeting the terrorist group.
At the Pentagon on Tuesday, Press Secretary Peter Cook said the focus for the United States is short-term detention.
“We’ve said previously that if there are people captured on the battlefield, that there would be every expectation that they would be a short-term detention. We’d work with the local authorities in those circumstances and people will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis,” he said.
Last month, U.S. special operators captured a high-level Islamic State fighter in Iraq, who has not been identified, and continue to detain him for questioning. DOD officials told news outlets last week that the United States will only detain the prisoner for the short term then transfer him to Iraqi Kurds.
Prior to that capture, the only high-level Islamic State official captured by U.S. forces was Umm Sayyaf, the wife of a prominent Islamic State financier, who had a role in the kidnapping and death of American Kayla Mueller. She also was transferred to Kurdish officials.
Cook said Tuesday that there are options available beyond Guantanamo Bay.
“But I’m not going to get into hypotheticals here,” he said.