Critics of Guantanamo Urge Hill to Intervene

By Charles Babington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 16, 2005

Key lawmakers, alarmed by international condemnation of U.S. treatment of prisoners at the military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, said yesterday they will press Congress to intervene in detainee policies despite the Bush administration's claim that running the detention camp is the province of the executive branch and the military.

At a four-hour Senate hearing yesterday, several Democrats denounced the administration's practices at Guantanamo Bay, and some Republicans agreed that Congress has been too passive in allowing detainees to be held for years without trials or consultations with lawyers.

Some senators objected when an administration official said detainees could be held at the prison forever. But others said criticisms of the prison camp might endanger U.S. military morale.

The Constitution "explicitly confers upon Congress" the power to define appropriate treatments for captured foreign suspects, said Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.). Recent Supreme Court rulings have emphasized "that it's really the job of the Congress," said Specter, who chaired the hearing. "At any rate, Congress hasn't acted, and that's really what the focus of our hearing is today as to what ought to be done."

Pentagon and Justice Department officials defended the administration, saying the approximately 520 detainees are not covered by legal protections afforded criminal defendants or prisoners of war.

"Detention of enemy combatants serves the vital military objectives of preventing captured combatants from rejoining the conflict and gathering intelligence to further the overall war effort and to prevent additional attacks," said J. Michael Wiggins, deputy associate attorney general.

Pressed by Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) on how long an enemy combatant might be held without trial, Wiggins said, "It's our position that, legally, they can be held in perpetuity."

Pressure has mounted on Congress in recent weeks to address allegations of detainee abuse at the prison, opened in January 2002 at a Navy base on a U.S.-leased slice of Cuba. Amnesty International issued a report last month and its secretary generalcalled the camp "the gulag of our time," a reference to Soviet labor camps. Former president Jimmy Carter is among those who have called for the United States to close the facility.

President Bush has left open that possibility, but he and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld also have defended treatment of Guantanamo Bay captives and said the government must have a facility where it can hold terrorism suspects.

Some detainees have complained about physical abuse and religious humiliation, though many claims are unverified. Rights groups have assailed the government for holding some prisoners for more than three years without trial.

Several senators said U.S. detention policies are undermining the nation's moral authority and inflaming the Islamic world. The situation "is an international embarrassment to our nation and to our ideals, and it remains a festering threat to our security," said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (Vt.), the Judiciary Committee's top Democrat.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) said abuses at Guantanamo Bay "have shamed the nation in the eyes of the world and made the war on terror harder to win. In many parts of the world, we are no longer viewed as the nation of Jefferson, Hamilton, and Madison. Instead, we are seen as a country that imprisons people without trial, and degrades and tortures them. Our moral authority went into a free fall."

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