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Homeland Security

Spokeswoman Says Administration Not Ready to Shut Guantanamo

22 June 2007

The Bush administration says it has no immediate plans to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay Cuba despite demands by some members of Congress and human rights groups. As VOA correspondent Meredith Buel reports from Washington, the administration says it wants to close the facility but has issues to resolve before that can happen.

White House spokeswoman Dana Perino says a meeting Friday to discuss Guantanamo was canceled because "there was no need for such a meeting at this time."

Perino says media reports that the administration is nearing a decision to close the facility are wrong.

"What I can tell you is that meeting was not a decisional meeting." she said. "There was nothing imminent coming out of that meeting and there are people who are charged with, tasked with, working on this issue everyday."

Perino reiterated that President Bush wants to close the detention center, but says there are several steps to be worked out, including sending some detainees back to their home countries.

The Guantanamo Bay prison has been the subject of criticism of the Bush administration, which has been under mounting pressure to close it.

At a recent hearing on Capitol Hill before the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, Democratic House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said the Guantanamo Bay prison has tarnished America's image.

"This hearing is an important step in addressing a situation that has been mishandled from the outset and which carries serious implications for our nation's reputation throughout the world," he said. "In fact, it has already had a very deleterious impact on the image and the moral standing of the United States of America."

The detention center, which serves as a military prison and interrogation camp, has been open since 2002 on what had been a quiet U.S. Navy base on the coast of Cuba.

Bush administration officials say there are about 375 members of the al-Qaida terrorist group and the Taleban currently detained there. Among those being held is Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who has confessed to being the mastermind behind the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.

The Bush administration argues the alleged terrorists need to be held until the end of the war on terror, without being given the same rights or access to the court system that prisoners have in the United States.

Critics, however, have accused the administration of violating basic human and legal rights.

Last year the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Bush administration's military tribunal system for the detainees, saying the procedures in place at the time violated American and international laws.

Following the court's decision, the Congress passed the Military Commissions Act, which set up new rules for interrogating suspected terrorists and bringing them to trial.

Human Rights Watch is one of many groups urging the administration to close Guantanamo Bay.

The group's advocacy director in Washington, Tom Malinowski, says the facility has diminished America's moral authority, alienated its allies, encouraged its enemies and undermined the country's struggle against terrorism.

"Every last one of the prisoners in Guantanamo is a continuing problem for the United States of America. Guantanamo is a miserable, embarrassing and complete failure, not just in moral terms but also in national security terms. It has hurt America far more than it has hurt its enemies. The answer is not to perpetuate the failure, it is to end it."

There have been allegations of abuse at Guantanamo, and four prisoners held there have reportedly committed suicide.

Maryland Democratic Senator Ben Cardin says some of the detainees have been in custody for more than five years and action needs to be taken.

"There is concern by some of us that we just don't know what to do with these people and therefore we just keep them in this indefinite status rather than confronting the issue of either trying or releasing them or sending them back to their host countries, which we should have done many years ago," he said.

A senior American diplomat acknowledges that the Guantanamo Bay detention center has become the focus of criticism, but says closing the facility is "easier said than done."

State Department legal adviser John Bellinger says about half of the original detainees have been transferred or released and about 80 of those still being held have been cleared to leave.

"The situation in Guantanamo is a source of frustration for this administration," he said. "On the one hand it serves a very important purpose to hold and detain individuals who are extremely dangerous."

"On the other hand, we fully and acutely recognize that Guantanamo has become a lightening rod for criticism around the world and this is something of deep concern to this administration," he added.

Bellinger says many of the administration's critics that have called for Guantanamo to be shut down have not offered any credible alternatives for dealing with the dangerous individuals who are detained there.

He says the administration recognizes that many people around the world view Guantanamo as inconsistent with U.S. values.

Bellinger says the administration will continue to take steps to protect Americans and the international community, while respecting the nation's commitment to the rule of law.

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