Associated Press WriterWASHINGTON (AP) -- American interrogators are in the early stages of trying to figure out which of the prisoners from the war in Afghanistan might be tried by military tribunals, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld said Tuesday.
But Pentagon officials are close to finishing the task of writing the rules for how such tribunals would operate.
For months, the CIA, FBI and other U.S. interrogators have been questioning prisoners captured in the war against Osama bin Laden and terrorist supporters.
The Pentagon has been working since November on writing procedures for the military commissions.
"It's getting increasingly clear as to how we would probably structure the commissions," Rumsfeld told a Pentagon news conference, while declining to give details.
"I feel, in the event the president does make a decision to assign someone to a commission ... we'd be ready to go within a relatively short period of time," the secretary said.
So far, interrogations have been aimed at sorting through prisoners and gathering intelligence on terrorist networks and possible future attacks -- rather than building cases against those in custody.
"The first sort has taken place for intelligence," Rumsfeld said. "The next sort is law enforcement, and that is starting and is proceeding."
"At some point the people who understand all of this in the law enforcement business will make recommendations on who will go before a tribunal," he said.
President Bush in early November approved the use of special military tribunals that could put accused terrorists on trial faster and in greater secrecy than ordinary criminal courts. The Pentagon says it will be up to Bush to decide who goes to a tribunal, and Pentagon lawyers have been working to write rules for anyone Bush might choose.
Thousands of Taliban and al-Qaida fighters have been captured by Afghan and U.S. forces, Pakistan and others since the campaign started Oct. 7. The United States has sorted through some and taken custody of several hundred. Some have been released.
Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke said Tuesday that American forces now hold 494 -- 194 in Afghanistan and 300 at a newly constructed high-security jail in Guantanamo, Cuba.
Officials have declined to name those held, saying it is hard to establish their true identities because they have aliases and lie. Most are al-Qaida figures, including at least two high-level al-Qaida figures, both of whom were involved in running terrorist training camps. American forces are also holding the Taliban's former ambassador to Pakistan and its former army chief of staff.
Though it remains to be seen how many, if any, of those being held might eventually be slated for tribunals, it was unclear what would be done with the rest. Some could be turned over to their own countries if it was certain those countries would properly punish them, defense officials have said.
Others might have to be kept in prison indefinitely to ensure they don't commit future terrorist attacks, officials say.
The State Department's wanted list includes some two dozen figures within bin Laden's al-Qaida terrorist organization. American officials also have said they were interested in catching Afghanistan's former Taliban leaders, who harbored bin Laden for several years as he plotted terrorist attacks against U.S. interests, including the Sept. 11 attacks in New York and Washington.