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Gates pushing for new venue for trials

March 30, 2007|Peter Spiegel | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Thursday that he had been pressing others in the Bush administration to move war crimes trials of suspected terrorists from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to courts inside the U.S. because the military tribunals may appear tainted in the eye of the international community.

No matter how open the trials are under a new law, Gates said, they may not be deemed credible by the outside world because of prior military practices at the U.S. naval prison at Guantanamo, which included interrogation techniques that involved physical coercion.

"My own view is that because of things that happened earlier at Guantanamo, there is a taint about it," Gates testified before the House Appropriations Committee's defense subcommittee.

He continued: "I felt that no matter how transparent, no matter how open the trials, if they took place at Guantanamo, in the international community they would lack credibility."

Gates repeated his support for closing down the prison and has expressed concern before that abuses there have harmed America's reputation abroad. But his comments come at an awkward time for the administration, with the trials resuming this week after a year's hiatus.

The first man to plead guilty in the trials, Australian David Hicks, is scheduled to appear before a tribunal at Guantanamo today to admit to specific crimes and receive his sentence. Hicks, a 31-year-old former kangaroo skinner, will be asked about 24 specific allegations on a Pentagon charge sheet, which involve weapons and tactics training with reputed terrorist groups in Albania, Pakistan and Afghanistan, as well as meetings with Osama bin Laden and would-be "shoe bomber" Richard Reid.

Hicks entered a plea of guilty Monday in a surprising reversal after his lawyers spent more than four hours wrangling with the military judge, Marine Col. Ralph H. Kohlmann.

The administration cites Hicks' conviction as a sign the new tribunals are legitimate, but Gates' comments could hamper the effort.

Gates has been widely credited by senior Pentagon officials and members of Congress for a more open and pragmatic style than his predecessor, Donald H. Rumsfeld.

His views on Guantanamo have been the most visible example of substantive differences. By some accounts, his stance on treatment of terrorism suspects may be the most significant policy break from Rumsfeld in Gates' tenure.

Within weeks of taking office in December, Gates killed a $102-million plan to build a large courthouse facility at Guantanamo, a proposal first made while Rumsfeld was still in charge at the Pentagon. Gates called the proposal "ridiculous" and instead ordered existing buildings to be refurbished, at about a tenth of the cost.

His views on the military tribunals could be more consequential. In the past, top administration lawyers have pushed for retaining most existing procedures, including the use of evidence gathered through coercion, despite adverse court rulings.

But Rumsfeld and his chief lieutenant on detainee issues, Stephen A. Cambone, both have left. That leaves Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales -- who, as White House counsel, urged Bush to ignore the Geneva Convention when dealing with detained Al Qaeda suspects -- increasingly isolated on the issue.

In his Capitol Hill testimony, Gates said there were "some number of people at Guantanamo that, frankly, based on their own confessions, should never be released."

"Now, I'm not the attorney general; I'm not a lawyer," Gates noted, saying he wanted to work with Congress to find a way to use the military prison system for some Al Qaeda suspects.

"It may be that it requires some kind of a statutory approach to deal with it in terms of how do you keep these people -- who are self-confessed terrorists, who will come back and attack the United States if they're ever released -- for the long term."

peter.spiegel@latimes.com

Times staff writer Carol J.

Williams in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, contributed to this report.

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