WASHINGTON — If the U.S. captures top al-Qaida leaders Osama Bin Laden or Ayman al-Zawahiri, they would likely be sent to the Guantanamo Bay military prison, CIA Director Leon Panetta told senators Wednesday.
This suggests that, given the choice, President Barack Obama would not try the men in the U.S. court system, opting instead for the Bush administration's policy that the president has long criticized.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said the president remains committed to closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay. Carney would not speculate on what would happen if bin Laden was captured.
Panetta discussed the hypothetical capture of two of America's most wanted terrorists in response to a question from a senator during a hearing about worldwide threats. Panetta said – if captured – the men would probably be quickly moved to Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan to be questioned and eventually sent to Guantanamo Bay.
Under current law, Guantanamo Bay detainees cannot be moved to U.S. soil, even to stand trial.
Both bin Laden and Zawahiri have been indicted and could stand trial in New York City.
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told senators said he expects multiple federal agencies would weigh in on whether to try the men. But if they are sent to Guantanamo, as Panetta predicted, trying the men in the U.S. court system would be prohibited.
Attorney General Eric Holder has said he hopes the U.S. will capture and interrogate bin Laden, but he doesn't expect the al-Qaida leader to be taken alive.
The U.S. has been trying to capture bin Laden and Zawahiri for more than 10 years. Intelligence officials believe they are hiding in Northwest Pakistan.
Associated Press writers Matt Apuzzo, Pete Yost and Nancy Benac contributed to this story.