WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Thursday that he expected staunch opposition in Congress to the Obama administration's plans to release some of the Chinese Muslims detained at Guantanamo into the United States.
Confirming the plans for the first time, Gates said that the administration intended to release some of the 17 Chinese Uighurs into the U.S. as part of the process of closing the prison, although he added that a final decision had not been made. Gates said the Uighurs would face persecution if they were returned to China, as Beijing has demanded.
Republicans and some Democrats in Congress have expressed strong opposition to the plan to free the Uighurs to live in American communities. Gates said he understood that almost any administration move on Guantanamo was likely to be controversial.
"I fully expect to have 535 pieces of legislation before this is over saying, 'Not in my district, not in my state,' " Gates said, referring to the number of senators and members of the House.
Gates, testifying before a Senate appropriations subcommittee, said it would be difficult to transfer other detainees to third countries if the U.S. did not accept some. Like the Chinese Muslims, many of those held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, could face torture or other persecution if they are sent to their home countries.
"It's difficult for the State Department to make the argument to other countries they should take these people that we have deemed in this case not to be dangerous if we won't take any of them ourselves," he said.
Twenty-two of the Uighurs were handed over to U.S. forces in Pakistan in 2002. The Uighurs, part of a movement that seeks independence from China, had received weapons training at a camp in Afghanistan, but are not considered a threat to the U.S. and are no longer considered "enemy combatants."
Gates said there also were 50 to 100 detainees at Guantanamo who were considered too dangerous to release.
Under questioning, Gates acknowledged that the administration might continue to use the controversial military commission set up by former President Bush, and later approved by Congress, to prosecute some of the detainees.
President Obama ordered a halt to all military commission trials during his first days in office, and many human rights groups believed that the administration had repudiated the controversial tribunals, which are allowed to use evidence that would be barred in civilian courts.
But senior administration officials have said privately that they may need to retain the commissions for some detainees. Gates confirmed that Thursday, saying the Justice Department was examining whether to continue to use the commissions and what changes might be necessary.
"The commissions are very much still on the table," Gates said.
His comment drew criticism from some human rights advocates.
"If the United States were to simply move the detainees onto U.S. soil and continue to detain them without charge or legal process, then the act of closing Guantanamo would have been meaningless," said Sharon Bradford Franklin, a lawyer for the Constitution Project, an advocacy group.