By Karen DeYoung and Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, March 24, 2007
The U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, is likely to remain open for the remainder of the Bush presidency despite Bush's stated desire to close it, the administration said yesterday.
"It's highly unlikely that you can dispense with all those cases between now and the end of the administration," White House spokesman Tony Snow said of about 385 prisoners currently at the Guantanamo facility. Asked directly whether the prison would close before Bush leaves office in January 2009, Snow said, "I doubt it, no."
On Monday -- more than five years after the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo was designated as a detention and interrogation center for alleged "enemy combatants" -- the first Guantanamo detainee case will come before a military panel under rules set last year in the U.S. Military Commissions Act. A federal judge ruled yesterday against a postponement requested by attorneys for Australian David Hicks, who is accused of providing material support for terrorists in Afghanistan during the first U.S. raids there in the fall of 2001.
The Guantanamo facility has long been a focus of international and domestic criticism. Other governments have protested the indefinite imprisonment of their nationals without adjudication. Civil rights groups have called the detentions illegal and cited prisoner's limited access to outside legal counsel and evidence against them. Human rights organizations have alleged the use of torture during interrogations.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates suggested during his first weeks in office in January, in conversations with Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales and White House national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley, that the prison be closed and the inmates transferred to facilities on U.S. soil. Three senior defense officials said yesterday that Gates was concerned that Guantanamo's notoriety would undermine the credibility of military commissions as they begin this year.
The officials said that Justice Department lawyers explained to Gates their concern that the detainees not come under the jurisdiction of U.S. courts, which might grant them legal rights that the department had been fighting for years. Gates's high-level intervention on the issue was first reported in yesterday's New York Times.
Although these officials and others said yesterday that Gates accepted the administration's concerns and backed off the subject, he has since made several public references to it. "There is no question in my mind that Guantanamo and some of the abuses that have taken place in Iraq have negatively impacted the reputation of the United States," Gates said at a February conference in Munich. While insisting that "there are real terrorists at Guantanamo," and that the military commissions will be legitimate and transparent, he said "there is no question that most of us would like to close the detainee facility."
Early this month, Gates told Congress that plans drafted under then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld to build a new $100 million compound for the trials at Guantanamo were "ridiculous," and that he had canceled them in favor of drastically scaled-back commission quarters. "I said, 'We'll be handed our hat if we go up to the Hill for $100 million for these courthouses,' " Gates added.
At a March 7 Pentagon news conference, he said that "Guantanamo has become symbolic, whether we like it or not, for many things around the world," adding that he was still wrestling with how to close it. "The president has said he'd like to close the detainee facility there. I'd like to close the facility there."
The administration has said that it plans to bring as many as 90 detainees before the commissions. It has long maintained that it is willing to transfer many of the rest to other countries but has been unable to find locations -- including their home countries -- to accept the small number that have been cleared or to guarantee imprisonment or surveillance for those the administration believes are dangerous.
Senior officials privately criticized other countries -- including Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, where many of the detainees hold citizenship -- for lambasting the United States over Guantanamo while not proposing solutions. The administration has said it hopes to transfer to Afghanistan a number of that country's nationals as soon as it finishes building a large prison there.
Repeating remarks he made in May, Bush said in July: "I'd like to close Guantanamo, but I also recognize that we're holding some people there that are darn dangerous and that we better have a plan to deal with them in our courts." In a Sept. 6 speech announcing the transfer to Guantanamo of 14 top al-Qaeda suspects previously held in secret overseas prisons, Bush disputed what he called "conflicting information" about Guantanamo.
Gates is not the first top official to argue that the facility should be closed. Then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell was eventually joined by then-Attorney General John D. Ashcroft in arguing that Guantanamo's liabilities outweighed its usefulness. Rumsfeld and Vice President Cheney, the chief proponents of maintaining and expanding the prison, prevailed with Bush, a former senior administration official said.
Powell's successor, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, told reporters yesterday that she agrees with Bush's desire to shut down Guantanamo. "The president has been very clear, and he is clear to us all the time," she said. "He would like to see it closed. We all would."
Staff writers Glenn Kessler and Michael A. Fletcher contributed to this report.