The Pentagon is planning to transfer half the inmates at Guantánamo Bay to prisons in Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Yemen, despite fears that they would face even worse human rights abuses than at the US camp.
The defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, has urged the State Department to ratchet up the pressure on unresponsive allies to take custody of the prisoners, and relieve the Bush administration of maintaining a detention facility which is increasingly viewed as a burden.
According to yesterday's New York Times, the transfers would be similar to the much-criticised practice of "renditions", under which the CIA has moved prisoners to Syria and Egypt, although the Guantánamo prisoners would be subject to review by the State Department and other government agencies.
The plans are widely seen as a reaction to court judgments which have made it increasingly untenable for the US to continue to use the base on Cuba for its original purpose: a vast holding pen in which prisoners in the war on terror could be held indefinitely beyond the scrutiny of the US courts.
Recent revelations from freed British inmates about torture and sexual humiliation at Guantánamo have also made it increasingly awkward for the Bush administration to maintain the detention facility in its present form.
Human rights organisations believe the Pentagon is anxious to rid itself of the burden of housing hundreds of prisoners who are no longer believed to hold any intelligence value in the war on terror. Some of the prisoners at Guantánamo have been held without recourse to the courts since autumn 2001.
However, Washington has discovered that some foreign governments were unresponsive to its requests to hand over detainees, prompting Mr Rumsfeld to draft a February 5 memo to the State Department seeking its support.
Officials said reviews by the State Department and other government agencies would help ensure that the prisoners would not be tortured.
Despite such measures, the prospect of a wholesale transfer of prisoners from Guantánamo to America's allies is bound to be controversial, especially as many of the inmates face a return to countries known to practice torture. More than 300 of the prisoners at Guantánamo are from Afghanistan, Yemen and Saudi Arabia, none of which has a good human rights record.
Michael Rattner, president of the Centre for Constitutional Rights, which represents many of the Guantánamo detainees, said: "Now that they have put themselves in this pickle of picking up many people who were not involved in terrorism, and keeping them for two or three years and abusing them in a number of cases, what are they going to do with them? Send them back to countries where governments are known to be involved in torture, with a label of terrorist practically around their neck?
"We don't want people rendered, or given their so-called freedom from Guantánamo, and then jailed in a country where they are going to be tortured."
The inmate population at Guantánamo has been steadily declining since its peak in 2002, with 146 prisoners freed outright and 62 transferred to their home countries. The prison population is now 540.
The Bush administration has no intention of dismantling the facility. It is seeking Congressional approval for $41.8m (£22m) to build a permanent facility and security fence, and Pentagon officials say as many as 200 of the current inmates are so dangerous they are likely to remain at Guantánamo indefinitely.