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Homeland Security

25 May 2006

Releasing Guantanamo Detainees Would Endanger World, U.S. Says

State Department legal adviser discusses human-rights concerns in webchat

By Vince Crawley
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington -- The U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, does not violate international law, and releasing detainees would allow dangerous combatants to target innocent civilians worldwide, the State Department’s legal adviser told a global Internet audience during a May 25 webchat.

In many cases, enemy fighters captured on battlefields in Afghanistan have broken no American laws and could not be tried in civil courts, yet they continue to pose a severe wartime danger, said John B. Bellinger III, the senior legal adviser to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

In the webchat, Bellinger stressed that it has been common practice throughout the history of warfare to hold enemy fighters in custody until hostilities end. Approximately 460 detainees were being held in Guantanamo as of May 18, the most recent date for which numbers were available, the Pentagon has said. Approximately 290 detainees have been released from Guantanamo -- either set free or turned over to the custody of another government.

Bellinger said the U.S. government “does not believe that any detainee at Guantanamo Bay has been subjected to torture.” He did acknowledge isolated cases in which Americans have illegally abused people being held in U.S. custody, but he said those cases have been dealt with in the American legal system, with 89 service members convicted in courts-martial.

“We are aware that some critics have alleged that the detention of detainees for a long period without trial … amounts to psychological torture,” Bellinger said. “We do not agree. … [I]n any armed conflict, the enemy combatants of the opposing side are held until the end of the conflict. It may be stressful, but that does not make it torture, and it does not mean that it is illegal.”

Bellinger led a team of more than two-dozen senior U.S. officials to Geneva May 5-8 to present oral and written reports to the U.N. Committee Against Torture. The exhaustive U.S. presentation included more than 200 pages of written answers to questions that centered on the conduct of U.S. detention operations around the world. (Seerelated article.)

In a State Department news conference May 19, Bellinger said the U.N. committee's report, issued that day, apparently ignored many of the documents submitted by U.S. officials. (See related article.)

“The U.N. Committee did call for the closure of Guantanamo Bay, because the Committee was concerned about the length of detention of the detainees,” Bellinger said in the May 25 webchat.

“The U.S. Government believes that the United States is in an armed conflict with Al Qaida, and that in any armed conflict it is appropriate to hold detained combatants until the end of the conflict,” Bellinger said.

“Holding enemy combatants until the end of the conflict does not constitute torture. This said, President Bush has said that he recognizes the concerns that have been raised about Guantanamo. He does not want to keep it open any longer than is necessary. However, there are many dangerous detainees in Guantanamo, who would pose a threat to the United States and other countries if they were released.”

It also is important to note what the chairman of the U.N. Committee Against Torture, Fernando Mariño Menendez of Spain, said when the committee report was released, Bellinger said. “He said that the Committee had concerns, but its report should not blown out of proportion, because the United States has a good record on human rights,” Bellinger said.

Meeting with European journalists May 4 in Brussels, Belgium, Bellinger said the United States would welcome international suggestions on alternatives to the Guantanamo Bay facility. (See related article.)

In his webchat, he said he is not aware of any examples in the history of warfare where “a detaining power has given criminal trials to the combatants it has detained (unless of course the prisoners have also committed war crimes).” Instead, enemy fights have been held until the end of hostilities. “We are also not aware,” he said, “of cases where the detaining power has simply released large numbers of enemy combatants during the course of the conflict.”

Roughly 10 percent of the hundreds of individuals who have been released from Guantanamo “have returned to fighting us in Afghanistan,” Bellinger said.

Some critics have called for criminal trials instead of indefinite detention for those being held at Guantanamo.  But Bellinger said trials are not practical in many cases.

“We do not believe that the detainees are simply criminals who were captured by police and who must be given criminal trials,” he said.

Many detainees were captured by U.S. or coalition forces in Afghanistan, and “in most cases they did not violate U.S. laws when they traveled from their home countries to train in acts of terrorism in Al Qaida training camps,” Bellinger said. “But does the fact that they did not violate existing U.S. criminal laws mean that they did nothing wrong and should be released? We think not. We believe that they were combatants who were fighting us in an armed conflict.”

Bellinger added, “The United States is absolutely committed to human rights, to the rule of law, and to compliance with our international law obligations, and we believe we are acting in compliance with our obligations in holding detainees in Guantanamo.”

He also addressed concerns in Europe about reports of alleged secret CIA flights carrying detainees. The practice of transporting a detainee from one country to another is known as rendition. Bellinger said that the U.S. government “has for decades conducted renditions on infrequent occasions when necessary to bring terror suspects to justice in the United States or to return them to their home countries or other countries where they are wanted.”

Alleged CIA flights have been reported widely in European media.

“The vast majority of allegations about renditions are simply untrue,” Bellinger said. The U.S. government has “given serious consideration to attempting to deny the many allegations that are untrue,” he said. “We have concluded, regretfully, that it is simply not appropriate or possible to deny every inaccurate allegation.”

For additional information, see Detainee Issues.

The transcript of Bellinger’s webchat is available on Webchat Station, along with information on recent and upcoming webchats sponsored by the State Department’s Bureau of International Information Programs.

(The Washington File is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site:

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