WASHINGTON — Even as Bush administration officials defend the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, concern is growing internally that it has blighted America's image abroad, and officials are reconsidering options for the offshore detention compound built after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Top administration officials continue to publicly support the prison as necessary for U.S. counter-terrorism efforts.
On Tuesday, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld issued a broad defense of the Guantanamo Bay prison and the treatment detainees received at the hands of U.S. forces.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday June 25, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 54 words Type of Material: Correction
Guantanamo Bay -- An article in the June 15 Section A about the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, said Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) had urged its closing. In fact, Martinez said June 10 that the Bush administration should consider closing the base, which he said had become an "icon for bad news."
"The United States government, let alone the U.S. military, does not want to be in the position of holding suspected terrorists any longer than is absolutely necessary," Rumsfeld said. "But as long as there remains a need to keep terrorists from striking again, a facility will continue to be needed."
Within the Pentagon and State Department, however, there is a widening internal debate about whether the prison is hindering the larger U.S. effort to combat Islamic extremism worldwide.
"From a public diplomacy standpoint, most people want to [close] it," said one senior Pentagon official involved in the debate.
But the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the issue's sensitivity, pointed out that no decision about the prison's future was imminent -- in part because no one had proposed a good alternative.
The prison is at a U.S. naval base built on land leased more than a century ago from Cuba. Although the facility is outside U.S. territory, the Supreme Court ruled last year that U.S. laws applied to it and to the detainees.
On Tuesday, Rumsfeld briefed Cabinet-level officials in what Pentagon spokesman Lawrence DiRita described as an update on detainee operations. DiRita said he had not heard "serious debate" within the Pentagon about shutting Guantanamo down.
"We've raised the questions: 'If we didn't have a facility like Guantanamo, where would we be able to do this kind of interrogation?' " DiRita said. "We've raised those issues over time and have always come back to the conclusion that if it wasn't Guantanamo, it would have to look a lot like Guantanamo. I mean, we've put $300 million into that place."
Other officials think that the controversies -- including a recent Pentagon report detailing instances of desecration of the Koran by U.S. troops -- have developed into a significant diplomatic problem for the United States.
"Internationally, we have a perception problem as to what we're trying to do and why, and Guantanamo has become a symbol of that problem," said a senior State Department official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
U.S. embassies continue to receive complaints and criticism, including from various European parliaments, with "people asking us: 'What is happening there? Are people being tortured?' " the official said.
The State Department recognizes the need to deal with the security issues posed by the Al Qaeda detainees, the official said.
"We have to deal with the war on terror," he said. "But we also have to deal with the image problem that derives from Guantanamo itself."
However, he said, shutting down the Guantanamo Bay prison was "easier said than done."
"The question is not only what to do with current detainees, but how to handle terrorism suspects who will be captured abroad in the future," he said.
The Bush administration is hoping to accelerate the repatriation of detainees to their home countries, which could slash hundreds from the prison's roster of 520 inmates.
More than two years have passed since the United States began sending terrorist suspects rounded up in Afghanistan to the island prison, and some inside the Pentagon say the most valuable intelligence has been gleaned from the inmates.
The Pentagon is holding detainees from about 40 nations at the prison, but the process of sending many of them home has been held up for a variety of reasons.
Nations such as Afghanistan do not have adequate detention facilities to accommodate its nationals in U.S. custody.
A second group of nations, including European countries such as Britain and Spain, have told the Pentagon they have no authority under domestic laws to detain the prisoners if the United States turns them over.
Officials said a third group of nations, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt and China, could not give the U.S. government sufficient assurances that repatriated prisoners would not be abused after they were handed over.
The repatriation of nearly two dozen ethnic Uighurs from China detained at Guantanamo Bay has been held up because of State Department concerns that the Uighurs might be tortured or killed after being turned over to Chinese custody.
"Nobody has come up with a brilliant answer to how to deal with these problems," said the senior Pentagon official, who added that closing the prison was an option.