WASHINGTON, Apr 20 (Reuters) Suspected senior al Qaeda leaders in US captivity may be put on trial eventually but for now they are too valuable as sources of intelligence, US intelligence chief John Negroponte said today.
''They have provided some valuable intelligence information with respect to the war on terror,'' Negroponte said at a National Press Club lunch.
''I can't overstate the importance of that information in the prosecution of the war on terror, and we believe it would certainly be a mistake to turn these people loose while the war on terror is going on,'' he added.
''Surely, at some point, it may prove desirable that they be brought to prosecution, to face justice. But that is something that I think will have to be decided in the future,'' Negroponte said.
Negroponte, who became the first US director of national intelligence a year ago as a result of post-September. 11 reforms, said US success at capturing or killing senior al Qaeda operatives has diminished the ability of Osama bin Laden's network to operate effectively.
''His high command is not nearly what it used to be,'' said the intelligence chief, a career diplomat who began his current job after serving nine months as U.S. ambassador to Iraq.
About 490 foreign terrorism suspects are being held at a prison at the US Naval base at Guantanamo Bay on Cuba and about three dozen others considered to be former principal lieutenants and deputies of bin Laden are at other undisclosed locations, US officials have said.
A Washington Post report last November that former top al Qaeda leaders were held at secret CIA prisons in Eastern Europe sparked outrage among Europeans and prompted several investigations which failed to produce definitive evidence.
Negroponte gave no clues as to what form any trial of the former al Qaeda leaders might take.
September. 11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui is currently on trial for his life in federal criminal court in Virginia but suspects at Guantanamo Bay face possible prosecution under a special system of US military tribunals.
The tribunals, formally known as commissions, have been challenged before the Supreme Court. A high court ruling is expected in June or July.
Only 10 of the Guantanamo Bay detainees have been charged with crimes.
REUTERS SC PM0241