By CNN National Security Producer Jennifer Rizzo
The U.S. military is still not clear where it would hold al Qaeda's most-wanted terrorist should he be caught, U.S. military officials said Tuesday.
Following up on a question asked of Adm. William McRaven, special operations commander, at his confirmation hearing last year, Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-New Hampshire, asked the admiral again: If al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri were caught tonight in Pakistan, where would he be placed for long-term detention?
"Last year, you said you weren't sure what we would do in that circumstance," Ayotte said. "Has anything changed since then?"
"Nothing has changed since then," McRaven responded.
Holding the al Qaeda head in Afghanistan would not be an option if he were caught elsewhere, the top U.S. commander in the Middle East said.
"Our practice now is not to do that," said Gen James Mattis, head of the U.S. Central Command. "It would take a government-to-government agreement to do something like that."
The recent defense authorization bill mandated that al Qaeda operatives caught overseas be held by the military, but the Obama administration issued a policy directive that allows the president to limit the instances in which foreign citizens suspected of links to al Qaeda must be handed over to the military for trial.
President Obama has signed an executive order to close Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, and no new prisoners have been transferred there since he took office. But the president has met fierce resistance from Republicans trying to block efforts to move terrorism suspects out of Guantanamo. This week, Attorney General Eric Holder said that civilian prisons are capable of holding terrorists, including the hundreds convicted of terror-related crimes currently in civilian prisons.
"Not one has ever escaped custody. No judicial district has suffered any kind of retaliatory attack. These are facts, not opinions," Holder said in a speech on Monday.