By Josh White and Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, June 22, 2007
Senior Bush administration officials are engaged in active discussions about closing the U.S. military detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, but deep divisions remain regarding the fate of the approximately 375 foreign detainees currently held there should the prison close, according to numerous officials familiar with the ongoing dialogue.
President Bush has stated publicly his desire to shut down the facility, which has drawn significant criticism and damaged the United States' reputation internationally. But debates over the legal implications and logistical hurdles to closing Guantanamo have highlighted the difficulties of such a move. Despite rising interest among the highest levels of the administration to resolve this issue before the end of Bush's presidency, viable alternatives have proved elusive, officials said yesterday.
Key discussions have centered on how to repatriate roughly 75 remaining detainees who have been cleared for release or transfer, how to put roughly 80 detainees on trial following major failures in the Military Commissions Act, and where to indefinitely hold an additional 220 detainees the government deems too dangerous to release. While there have been preliminary talks of bringing them to military detention centers in the United States, there has been significant opposition from Vice President Cheney as well as from the Justice and Homeland Security departments, and officials said yesterday that they are not on the brink of a decision.
"The President has long expressed a desire to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility and to do so in a responsible way," National Security Council spokesman Gordon D. Johndroe said in a statement. "A number of steps need to take place before that can happen, such as setting up military commissions and the repatriation to their home countries of detainees who have been cleared for release. These and other steps have not been completed. No decisions on the future of Guantanamo Bay are imminent."
The Associated Press reported yesterday that a meeting of several top Bush administration officials about Guantanamo's future was scheduled for today, but the White House denied such a meeting was taking place. Two administration officials said last night that a meeting about several topics is scheduled for today but that the Guantanamo issue was removed from the agenda after news of the meeting broke.
Still, officials said the discussions are not yet at a decision point because too many issues remain unresolved. Justice officials have argued against moving Guantanamo detainees to the United States because it would immediately grant the alleged terrorists habeas corpus rights, which would launch another round of legal battles in U.S. federal courts. Homeland Security officials have opposed such a move because it would mean bringing some of the people on the nation's terror watch list -- including the highest-level detainees that the United States has in its custody, such as Khalid Sheik Mohammed -- inside U.S. borders. Cheney's office also has vehemently opposed bringing the detainees into this country.
The move toward closing the facility is rooted in part in the international outrage its existence has provoked, drawing criticism from international human rights groups, legal advocacy organizations and governments that can point to the indefinite detentions there as an example of U.S. hypocrisy about legal rights. Years-old allegations of abuse and severe interrogation tactics have soured the facility's reputation, and despite the military's efforts to make it an example of humane detention, four suicides in the past year have drawn negative attention and publicity.
"Of course people are talking about closing Guantanamo, of course," a senior administration official said. "[Defense Secretary Robert M.] Gates has said he wanted to close it down. [Secretary of State Condoleezza] Rice has spoken out on the issue. So far, it's a tide but not a wave. They don't want to leave this behind. They want to resolve this."
House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) testified on Capitol Hill before the U.S. Helsinki Commission yesterday, stating that Guantanamo is "not only a problem but an international disgrace that every day continues to sully this great nation's good reputation." The commission is examining the human rights implications of keeping the facility open.
In testimony submitted to the commission, John Bellinger III, legal adviser to the State Department, said that the administration is "acutely aware" of concerns that have been raised at Guantanamo and understands that it has been "a lightning rod for international and domestic criticisms."
"Although our critics abroad and at home have called for Guantanamo to be shut immediately, they have not offered any credible alternatives for dealing with the dangerous individuals that are detained there," Bellinger said in written testimony. "Our experience has shown that transferring or releasing a detainee from Guantanamo is quite difficult."
Defense officials said they believe at least 22 -- and possibly as many as 50 -- former Guantanamo detainees have returned to the battlefield to fight against the United States and its allies, a significant concern should detainees cross into the United States and earn their release.
The Pentagon did a contingency study on housing the detainees at military facilities in the United States last year and determined that the only detention center that could realistically house more than 200 detainees from Guantanamo in maximum security cells would be the Navy brig in Charleston, S.C., but that the brig and the surrounding base would need significant security enhancements.
Staff writers Michael Abramowitz and Peter Baker and staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.