WASHINGTON - The first members of Congress to tour the facilities housing Taliban and al-Qaida prisoners at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, reported yesterday that international complaints about the treatment of the detainees were unfair.
Three separate congressional delegations - a total of 25 lawmakers - visited the chain-link-fenced Camp X-Ray yesterday and concluded that the 158 prisoners from 25 nations there were receiving better food and medical care than many needy Americans. And the lawmakers said they thought the prisoners were housed under more humane conditions than are often accorded Americans who are arrested on criminal charges abroad.
"We came back feeling that a good job was being done under difficult circumstances," said Rep. Constance A. Morella, a Montgomery County Republican, who led a group of 17 House members on a day trip to Cuba. "No one can accuse us of inhumane treatment."
Rep. Peter A. DeFazio of Oregon, one of two Democrats among the lawmakers who visited Cuba, said the United States was exceeding the standards for the humane treatment of prisoners of war set by the Geneva Convention - even though it has not classified the prisoners as POWs.
The tours were arranged by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld after days of international protests that the detainees were being held under unduly harsh conditions. Some of the prisoners are believed to be members of the international network that planned and carried out the Sept. 11 attacks, and they have been brought to Guantanamo to be interrogated by intelligence officials.
Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, an Eastern Shore Republican who made the trip, said before he left that Rumsfeld had organized the tours "to make sure that as many people as possible can view the detainees' incarceration."
"There were wild accusations being made without investigation, and the administration knew this was going to be a subject of worldwide attention," Gilchrest said upon his return last night. "But from what I saw, everything the Red Cross has asked for has been granted: a Muslim cleric, a weekly shower, a weekly washing of their clothes, access to a private toilet."
Rumsfeld is scheduled to visit the prison tomorrow.
Little has been seen of the prisoners since they were photographed in transit to the base. One Pentagon photo, which showed the prisoners manacled and kneeling, with their eyes covered, in front of U.S. soldiers, created an uproar among some U.S. allies.
Rep. John L. Mica, a Florida Republican, said he had heard many such complaints on a trip to Europe last week. He said after touring the prison facilities yesterday that he found those accusations "deeply offensive."
Some of the prisoners could be returned to their home countries for prosecution once intelligence officials determine whether they have a role in the terrorist network, the lawmakers said. Hundreds more still in Afghanistan are likely to be moved to Guantanamo, where a larger, more permanent prison is under construction.
Several lawmakers disputed any notion that they were part of a Pentagon public relations effort.
Sen. Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat who traveled separately with two Republican Senate colleagues, said he was primarily interested in learning whether military interrogators were gleaning useful information from prisoners.
Nelson was also concerned, his spokesman said, about whether U.S. military personnel are in danger from prisoners, "who are a large group of very, very dangerous, possibly suicidal people."
A third delegation, led by Rep. Porter J. Goss, a Florida Republican, also visited Guantanamo yesterday as part of what a Goss spokeswoman called "an intelligence oversight" mission.
Morella said it was too soon to know how successful interrogators would be in obtaining vital information from the prisoners.