Bush administration officials are considering granting Guantanamo detainees substantially greater rights as part of an effort to close the detention center and possibly move much of its population to the US, according to officials involved in the discussions.
One proposal that is being widely discussed in the administration would overhaul the procedure for determining whether detainees are properly held by granting them legal representation at detention hearings. Also, federal judges, not military officers, would have the power to decide whether suspects should be held.
Some officials now say that moving the detainees to US soil would require giving them enhanced protections.
The Bush administration has insisted for more than five years that a central legal pillar of the war on terror is that the military alone has the power to decide which foreign terrorism suspects should be held and for how long, and backing away from that would be a sharp change of course.
Yet some officials say that enhancing detainees' rights could also help the administration strategically, by undercutting a case brought by suspects at Guantanamo that is now before the US Supreme Court, which could wind up winning them even more power to challenge their detention.
Under current procedures at Guantanamo, military officers decide whether detainees are properly held as enemy combatants, and the suspects are not permitted lawyers in the detention hearings.
Officials from US President George W. Bush on down have said they would like to close Guantanamo.
In interviews, officials said the discussion of detainee rights was not an acknowledgment that past policies were flawed, but rather was an indication that the administration was engaged in trying to assess the legal and practical consequences of shutting the detention center and moving detainees to the US.
Before any detainees can be moved, officials have said that they would need to find or build a secure site in the US and that they would need legislation allowing detainees deemed to be a threat to be held.
Under current proposals, scores of detainees might continue to be held indefinitely without facing criminal charges.
"These are dangerous men," said Sandra Hodgkinson, deputy assistant secretary of defense for detainee affairs. "There has to be an appropriate way of handling that," she said.
Hodgkinson cited practical considerations about widening detainees' legal rights if they were to be moved.
She also noted that Pentagon officials were insisting that enemy combatants held outside the country could be held by the military until such point as they were not deemed a threat, the newspaper said.
The proposal to provide lawyers to detainees for detention hearings with their cases being heard by judges would also need to be restricted to those held inside the US.
Referring to the 24,500 detainees held in Iraq, she asked, "How would we provide 25,000 lawyers in Iraq?" She then said it would be impossible for the US to do so.