WASHINGTON -- U.S. interrogations of al-Qaida and Taliban prisoners from the war in Afghanistan have begun focusing on which -- if any -- of the nearly 500 in custody may be tried by a U.S. military tribunal.
"Some may very well be," Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Tuesday. The final decision is President Bush's.
"My job was to get ready and be prepared," Rumsfeld said, adding that he would be ready soon.
Up to now, the interrogations have sought mainly to extract information that might help the Pentagon or U.S. law enforcement agencies preempt future terrorist attacks or that might shed additional light on the workings of the al-Qaida network or the whereabouts of its leader, Osama bin Laden.
The next step, now under way, is to determine whether and how to prosecute, Rumsfeld said. Those not tried by a military tribunal would either be prosecuted in a U.S. civilian or military court; returned to their home country for prosecution; released outright, or held in U.S. custody indefinitely, he said.
At a Pentagon news conference, Rumsfeld said he is putting the finishing touches on guidelines for conducting any military tribunals that Bush might order. He said he would not reveal details of how the tribunals would function until the entire legal framework has been completed.
A military tribunal could put accused terrorists on trial faster and in greater secrecy than an ordinary criminal court.
The Bush administration has determined that no Americans would face a tribunal; among the 494 prisoners now in U.S. custody there are citizens of more than two dozen other countries. Some, including Saudi Arabia, have asked that their citizens be returned for prosecution.
The Pentagon has not decided where any military tribunal would be held. Rumsfeld said the choice of venue might depend on the number of prisoners designated for such trials.
Victoria Clarke, spokeswoman for Rumsfeld, said there was no need to rush the legal preparations for military tribunals because it was not yet clear how many -- if any -- prisoners would be tried.
"There's not a sense that we've got a person or two people that we feel are really candidates to go through it," she said.
Rumsfeld wants to keep to a minimum the number of prisoners tried by the United States.