Vice President Cheney offered a vigorous defense yesterday of the secretive prison for suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and said the United States has no plans to shut it down.
Although President Bush kept open the possibility of closing the prison outpost in Cuba, Cheney said such a move would be unwise because the United States needs a special prison to hold and interrogate potential terrorists captured around the world. Cheney said prisoners there are treated "far better" than they would be by any other government and disagreed sharply with critics who charge the United States' image has been undermined by allegations of abuse at the facility.
"Now, does this hurt us from the standpoint of international opinion?" Cheney said at the National Press Club. "I frankly don't think so. And my own personal view of it is that those who are most urgently advocating that we shut down Guantanamo probably don't agree with our policies anyway."
Over the weekend, Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) said Bush should consider closing the Guantanamo Bay base, and Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) cited controversy at the prison as one reason the United States is "losing the image war around the world." Democrats and some human rights groups have offered harsher assessments. The Guantanamo Bay prison, along with last year's Abu Ghraib prison scandal in Iraq, "is a national disgrace, an international embarrassment to us and our ideals, and a festering threat to our security," Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) said in a floor speech yesterday.
Bush, for the first time, raised the possibility of closing the facility during an interview on Fox News last week, but since then, Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld have made it clear the option is not under serious consideration. Scott McClellan, the White House spokesman, yesterday echoed many of Cheney's comments, but pointedly refused to rule out closing the prison. "The president believes that we should always be looking at our options of how best to protect the American people, and that means how to deal with detainees, as well," McClellan said. Still, he said, Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld are "on the same page."
Cheney said: "If we didn't have that facility at Guantanamo to undertake this activity, we'd have to have it someplace else because they're a vital source of intelligence information. They've given us useful information that has been used in pursuing our aims and objectives in the war on terror."
The Guantanamo Bay base has been a source of controversy since its creation. It was built as the main prison for suspected terrorists captured in Afghanistan, Iraq and other fronts in what Bush calls the "war on terror." But it has been rocked by allegations of abuse and complaints that some prisoners have been wrongly detained for months with little explanation or evidence. A recent Defense Department investigation also found several instances of mistreatment of the Koran, after Newsweek magazine retracted a report that U.S. soldiers in Cuba had flushed the Islamic holy book in a toilet.
On Sunday, the Defense Department released rare specific details of what apparently was a fruitful series of interrogations with suspected terrorist Mohamed Qahtani, who authorities believe was slated to be the 20th hijacker for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Qahtani, an al Qaeda operative, was captured on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border and was brought to Guantanamo in February 2002.
In response to a Time magazine article that describes an interrogation log from Qahtani's incarceration, the Defense Department said the detainee has provided valuable information about al Qaeda and its activities, demonstrating how useful Guantanamo can be to the U.S. military. Qahtani told interrogators that he had met with Osama bin Laden and trained in two al Qaeda camps, and "helped the U.S. to understand the recruitment of terrorist operatives, logistics, and other planning aspects of the 9/11 terrorist attack."
Qahtani also told interrogators about infiltration routes and methods used by al Qaeda to cross borders without being detected, spoke about how bin Laden evaded capture by U.S. forces, and gave information about 30 of bin Laden's bodyguards who are also held in Cuba. According to the Time account, Qahtani was subjected to some of the most restricted interrogation methods available to the military, was questioned in a room filled with photos of Sept. 11 victims and was made to wear photographs of near-naked women around his neck.
Bryan Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman, said the details about Qahtani's value were released in response to the disclosure of Qahtani's classified interrogation log and to demonstrate the type of people who are being held at Guantanamo. Whitman also said such information has allowed the United States to thwart terrorist attacks.
"It reflects the value of the operation and how the information gathered at Guantanamo has saved lives," Whitman said yesterday.
Americans do not appear too concerned about allegations of abuse, according to the latest poll by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center. The poll found half of those surveyed had heard about reports of prisoner abuse, but only one in three considered the allegations more than isolated instances.
Rep. Ike Skelton (Mo.), the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, issued a statement yesterday calling for more congressional hearings about detainee abuse. "We need to understand the nature and extent of detainee abuse before reaching any conclusions about whether or not to close the prison facility at Guantanamo Bay," he said.
Cheney said suspects are properly housed, cared for and treated with respect. More than 200 people have been released to their home countries, and "in light of the fact that some 10 or 12 of them have gotten back into the fight on the other side, we have not been overly harsh in the judgments that were made," he said.