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By David Morgan
WASHINGTON, Dec 18 The Pentagon is working on a plan to shut the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, that would be available to President-elect Barack Obama when he takes office on Jan. 20, a defense official said on Thursday.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has asked his staff to come up with an assessment of what it would take to shutter the prison camp that has become a blemish on the international reputation of the United States.
"If this is one of the president-elect's first orders of business, the secretary wants to be prepared to help him as soon as possible," Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell told reporters.
"(Gates) has asked his team for a proposal on how to shut it down -- what would be required specifically to close it, and move the detainees from that facility, while at the same time, of course, ensuring that we protect the American people from some dangerous characters."
Obama has pledged to close the prison located at the U.S. naval station in southeastern Cuba, which has come to symbolize aggressive detention practices that opened the United States to allegations of torture.
There was no immediate word on how soon Obama might address the Guantanamo question. But the president-elect, who has repeatedly called its closure a top foreign policy priority, said in the current issue of Time magazine that he hoped to have the jail shut during the first two years of his term.
Gates, who was appointed by Bush, but has agree to stay on under Obama, also wants Guantanamo shut.
The jail currently holds about 250 detainees apprehended as part of President George W. Bush's war on terrorism, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, accused of masterminding the Sept. 11 attacks.
LENGTHY, COMPLEX PROCESS
Defense officials said the task of closing Guantanamo is likely to be a lengthy, complex process that would involve all three branches of the government.
"You look at this sort of thing early because that's when you have momentum for bringing about change. With a new administration coming in, you've got people who are willing to do what's necessary," said one defense official.
Officials said members of the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff will provide Obama with a set of options for tackling the complex issues raised by Guantanamo. It was not clear whether the Pentagon would recommend a specific course of action to the new president.
The Obama administration would need to decide where to hold current detainees, particularly about 110 prisoners who the Pentagon believes are too dangerous to be released from U.S. custody. Options might include military installations on U.S. soil and civilian federal prisons.
The United States would also need to decide what kind of court system should handle trials for roughly 80 detainees. There are now charges against 20.
"The request has been made, his team is working on it so that he can be prepared to assist the president-elect should he wish to address this very early in his tenure," the press secretary said.
Addressing these issues could require input from a number of other government entities including the Justice Department, judicial officers and Congress, officials said. In fact, Gates has said that Congress should pass legislation to protect the American public by preventing any former Guantanamo detainee from living in the United States.
The Guantanamo tribunals are scheduled to reconvene on Jan. 19 for pretrial hearings for Canadian captive Omar Khadr, who is set for trial the following week on charges of murdering a U.S. soldier with a grenade during a firefight in Afghanistan. (Additional reporting Caren Bohan in Chicago and Jane Sutton in Miami, Editing by Howard Goller)