‘We Are Stuck’ With Guantanamo, Gates Says

gitmo2.jpgDefense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who last year said he would look for ways to close the Guantanamo Bay military prison, has told the Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee that his inter-agency effort has been brought to a “standstill” by what he called “a serious not-in-my-back-yard problem.”

Gates said there are “about 70” detainees whom the United States is prepared to send back to home countries. But those governments “either won’t accept them or we are concerned that the home government will let them loose once we return them.”

Making that prospect more real was the U.S. military‘s announcement that one of the people who set a suicide bomb in Mosul, Iraq, this month was identified as Abdallah Salih al-Ajmi, a Kuwaiti who was captured in Afghanistan, sent to Guantanamo and released in 2005 after three years there. Al-Ajmi was released when he returned home.

“What do you do with that irreducible 70 or 80, or whatever the number is, who cannot be let loose but will not be charged and will not be sent home?” Gates asked.

Seeking that answer, he said he had talked to members of Congress, Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey and other Bush administration officials. “I haven’t found anybody who wants these terrorists to be placed in a prison in their home state,” he said.

The result, he said, “is that we are stuck” with Guantanamo Bay.

Gates and Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also discussed the fiscal 2009 Defense Department budget in their appearance before the subcommittee.

In response to a question from Chairman Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii), Mullen acknowledged that the “continuous escalation” of the $180 billion in costs associated with pay, benefits and health care for the all-volunteer active-duty and reserve armed forces “does not bode well for a military of this size.”

“There are limits which we will hit which will, in the constraints that exist, force us to a smaller military or force us away from any kind of modernization or programs that we need for the future, or curtail operations,” Mullen said.

Gates called the rising cost of health care “one area that not only concerns us but where we believe we have to get under control.” He said the Defense Department’s health-care costs went from $19.5 billion in 2001 to the projected $42.8 billion sought for next year. Within that figure, he said, are military retirees, who are eligible, along with family members, for Tricare medical and dental programs.

Gates said that by fiscal 2011, “65 percent of the people being served by [the Pentagon‘s health-care] budget will be retirees.”

When it was begun in 1995, Tricare Prime had annual enrollment fees of $230 for a single retiree or $460 for a family. Many retirees are in good health and are often working in other jobs, and premiums have not increased since the program started.

Gates said there is a $1 billion shortage in the Pentagon’s proposed fiscal 2009 health-care budget that it hopes to fill with a small increase in premiums for younger retirees.

Veterans groups and others so far have succeeded in persuading Congress not to approve the price hike. Gates said a Tricare premium increase for retirees could help slow rising health costs “without impinging on those who are in the service today.”

Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-S.D.) asked Gates why the United States will still be paying $2.5 billion to train and equip Iraqi security forces next year, when the Baghdad government will earn $70 billion from oil exports this year. Gates replied that U.S. support has dropped each year as the Iraqis have paid more. But he added that by paying something, the United States can continue to keep an eye on the progress of Iraqi security forces.

“We need to scale this gradually . . . so we can keep an oar in, in terms of the quality and in terms of making sure that the training is of the kind that we’d want,” he said.

He added that although the Pentagon continues to provide Iraq with U.S. weapons and equipment, it is gradually moving Iraq to buy those same arms from American suppliers.

National security and intelligence reporter Walter Pincus pores over the speeches, reports, transcripts and other documents that flood Washington and every week uncovers the fine print that rarely makes headlines — but should. If you have any items that fit the bill, please send them to fineprint@washpost.com.