WASHINGTON — US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Tuesday he would not approve the transfer of any Taliban inmates held at the US-run prison in Guantanamo Bay unless he was sure the detainees would not return to the battlefield.
President Barack Obama's administration has confirmed tentative discussions with the Taliban insurgency on a possible transfer of five inmates from the prison at the US naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba to the Gulf state of Qatar.
But Panetta struck a cautious tone at a senate hearing, saying he was legally bound to ensure the release of an inmate would not pose a security threat.
"Absolutely no decisions have been made along this line," he told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
"I can tell you this, that based on the law that's passed by the Congress, I have to certify that anybody who leaves Guantanamo cannot wind up going back to the enemy.
"And I've got to be convinced that those kinds of protections are in place before I certify that anything like that happens."
At the same hearing, the US military's top-ranking officer, General Martin Dempsey, said he had concerns about the security risks posed by transferring the detainees but said he supported efforts at reconciling with the insurgency after 10 years of war.
Speculation has swirled over initial US talks with the Taliban, with officials saying five Taliban militants might be transferred to Qatar as a confidence-building measure, possibly in exchange for the insurgency renouncing violence in a de facto break with Al-Qaeda extremists.
Republican lawmakers have voiced dismay over the potential deal, but analysts say Obama will almost certainly avoid taking such a politically-charged step ahead of US elections in November.