Adm. Kurt Tidd said Monday that current staffing at the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, detention facilities could probably handle a few dozen more prisoners, but he'd need more guards if the population increased significantly.
At a Pentagon briefing, Tidd, the commander of U.S. Southern Command which has responsibility for "Gitmo," said he had received no orders at this time to accept more prisoners but "we have the ability to receive more detainees should the decision be made."
No terror suspects have been sent to Guantanamo since the last year of the administration of President George. W. Bush in 2008. The population of Guantanamo had risen to more than 700 under Bush but had come down to 242 when President Barack Obama took office.
The population of Guantanamo stood at 41 when Obama left office and has remained the same in the administration of President Donald Trump, although six detainees have been cleared for transfer to their home countries by military commissions.
At a Pentagon briefing on Feb. 20, officials said that the first prisoner slated to leave Guantanamo on Trump's watch would soon be released to the custody of Saudi Arabia.
"We anticipate the transfer soon" of Ahmed al-Darbi, who pleaded guilty to war crimes four years ago before a military commission, said Dana White, the Pentagon's chief spokesperson.
White gave no timeline for the transfer. "I can't qualify 'soon' or 'relatively soon,' but it is our hope this will move forward soon," she said.
Al-Darbi, a Saudi national who reportedly has cooperated with interrogators since his guilty plea, was to be transferred to Saudi Arabia, where he was expected to serve out the remainder of his nine-year sentence.
He was slated to be released from "Gitmo" on Feb. 20, but White said the transfer was temporarily held up for administrative reasons. "This decision is not a unilateral decision," and involved the State and Justice Departments as well as the Saudis, she said.
During the campaign and since he took office, Trump charged that many of those released from Gitmo by Obama returned to the battlefield, and he pledged to fill up the detention facility again with "bad dudes."
However, White said that "currently, there are no plans to move anyone to Guantanamo" from among the thousands of suspected Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) fighters who were captured or surrendered in Syria to the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has called on coalition allies to take custody of their nationals among those held by the SDF.
One of those who surrendered to the SDF was an as yet unidentified U.S. citizen who was taken into custody by the U.S. military and is believed to be held now in Iraq.
"This individual has had access to an attorney," White said, and the Defense Department was working with the Justice and State Departments to resolve questions of jurisdiction and due process.
In his Jan. 30 State of the Union address, Trump said he had directed Mattis to conduct a study of detention policies for terrorism suspects, "including policies governing the transfer of individuals to Guantanamo."
During the presidential campaign, Trump pledged that he would "load up" Guantanamo with "lots of bad dudes" captured around the world.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.