By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 11, 2007
Former secretary of state Colin L. Powell said yesterday that he would close down the U.S. military prison for enemy combatants at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, "this afternoon" because it has become a major problem in "the way the world perceives America."
"Essentially, we have shaken the belief that the world had in America's justice system by keeping a place like Guantanamo open and creating things like a military commission," Powell said on NBC's "Meet the Press."
Making it clear that he "would not let any of those people go," Powell said, "I would simply move them to the United States and put them into our more federal legal system." He said he sees no problem in detainees having the right of habeas corpus and getting their own lawyers. "Isn't that what our system is all about?"
Powell was the only member of President Bush's first-term "war cabinet" who argued against the detainee policies. Those policies said the United States was not obligated to abide by the Geneva Conventions in its treatment of enemy combatants.
Opened in late 2001 for suspected terrorists apprehended in Afghanistan, Guantanamo now has about 385 prisoners. They have no right to file habeas corpus petitions under a law signed last year, but they have their status reviewed annually by a military panel. Last week, two military judges ruled that the first trials of Guantanamo detainees by military panels could not go forward because the detainees had not been classified as unlawful enemy combatants. The Defense Department is appealing the ruling.
Powell's view comes close to that of Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates. In March, Gates said that there was a "taint" about Guantanamo and that the more dangerous detainees should be held, but that the military prison should be closed.
In a wide-ranging interview, Powell also said, "We didn't prepare ourselves well enough for the kinds of challenges that occurred in the aftermath of the fall of Baghdad," although he and Bush were aware of the postwar problems that the United States would face -- issues addressed in a CIA analysis seven months before the war started.
"We were liberators for a moment," Powell said, "and then we simply did not handle the aftermath." He described the burning and looting of government ministries as the beginning of the insurgency. Turmoil went on, he said, because "we didn't have enough troops there to restore that order, nor did we have the political understanding of our obligation to restore that order."
Powell said that Iraq is a sectarian civil war "that ultimately will be fought out between Sunnis and Shias, Shias and Shias, Sunnis and al-Qaeda." In that turmoil, Powell said, al-Qaeda "is a relatively small percentage of this overall problem, but a very violent percentage."
He said the increase of U.S. troops is only a part of three elements that make up the current policy. The other two -- building up Iraqi security forces and Iraqi political reconciliation -- "are not going well." As for recent changes in U.S. military leadership in Iraq and creating a war czar in the White House, Powell said: "You can move the deck chairs around and you can bring in new people and you can change organizational arrangements, but ultimately the president has the responsibility."
Powell declined to say that he would support the Republican Party nominee for president next year, saying that he would back "the best person I can find." When he joined the GOP in 1995, Powell said that it had moved too far to the right and that he would work to bring it to the moderate center. But he has never been closely involved in party politics and more than a decade ago said he would never run for elective office.
In yesterday's interview, he said he has not ruled out returning to public service and had no favorite in the presidential race. "I make myself available to talk about foreign policy matters with whoever wishes to chat with me," he said in response to a question about his twice meeting with Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.).
Attitudes have changed about gays in the military since he supported the "don't ask, don't tell" policy established when he was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Clinton administration. He said wartime is not a time to alter the policy, but he thought "gays and lesbians should be allowed to have maximum access to all aspects of society."
Staff writer Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.