| Detainees at a holding area in Camp X-Ray inside the Guantanamo Bay naval base, Cuba. (Reuters)
Washington, June 10: The administration has for the first time raised the prospect of closing the Guantanamo Bay prison camp in apparent recognition of the damage it has done to America’s image worldwide.
With domestic voices joining the chorus of outrage over the fate of detainees at the base, President George W. Bush provoked a flood of speculation when he left open the possibility of shutting it down.
“We’re exploring all alternatives as to how best to do the main objective, which is to protect America,” he said, asked in an interview with Fox News whether he would close it.
He went on to defend the treatment of the 540 terrorist suspects at the camp as being in line with international standards. He also defended the policy of not treating them as prisoners of war.
But administration officials yesterday made clear that Bush’s remarks betrayed a significant shift, paving the way for heated debate in Washington over what to do with the terrorist suspects at the base.
The officials signalled that there were no immediate plans to close the base pending an anticipated clash between “hawks” and “doves” over its future.
Rather, the administration is expected to accelerate the transfer of detainees back to their home countries.
“It’s never been our intention to hold these people indefinitely,” said an administration official. “It is not our goal to be an international jailer.”
The CIA and the Pentagon have long defended the use of Guantanamo Bay, a base on the eastern tip of Cuba, arguing that the detainees provide priceless intelligence to foil terrorist attacks.
Donald Rumsfeld, the defence secretary, appeared to dismiss the idea of closing the base on Wednesday, saying he did not know of anyone in the administration entertaining such a thought.
But yesterday he took a markedly less hawkish stance, saying that America would rather the detainees were imprisoned in their home countries.
The bulk of the detainees were captured on the battlefield in Afghanistan in 2001. Since the base opened, 234 detainees have been returned home, either as free men or to imprisonment. The repatriation process is now expected to be speeded up.
The White House was infuriated last week when Amnesty International compared Guantanamo Bay to the Gulags of the Soviet Union.
“It’s just absurd to equate Guantanamo with a Soviet Gulag,” Bush said this week. “Not even close.”
But the state department and less hawkish officials in the White House are acutely aware of the disastrous impact the reports of abuse of prisoners at the base has had on America’s reputation.
The debate began to take hold in America at the weekend when Joe Biden, a leading Democratic senator who has backed the war in Iraq called for the base’s closure. He described it as the “greatest propaganda tool” that existed for terrorists’ recruitment.