WASHINGTON - Some Bush administration officials have come to believe the U.S. detention camp in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, should be closed because reports of abuse have created a public-relations problem, a senior Republican lawmaker said yesterday.
Rep. Duncan Hunter, a California Republican and chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said the administration was divided on the issue, with some officials taking the view that if the facility is shut down, "you shorten the [news] stories, you shorten the heated debate, and you get it off the table and you move on."
Hunter's comments on Fox News Sunday were the latest sign that the White House is considering a step that would require it to find other accommodations for about 520 detainees.
After former President Jimmy Carter urged the closure of the camp and Amnesty International referred to it as a "gulag for our time," President Bush and his aides indicated last week that they were considering options.
Bush said in a June 8 television interview that "we're exploring all alternatives as to how best to do the main objective." At the same time, he warned that "what we don't want to do is let somebody out that comes back and harms us."
Friday, Florida Sen. Mel Martinez became the first prominent Republican to urge the facility's closing, saying, "it's become an icon for bad stories, and at some point you wonder the cost-benefit ratio. ... Is it serving the purposes you thought it would serve when initially you began it?"
Vice President Dick Cheney, in an interview to be broadcast today on Fox News' Hannity & Colmes, said there is "no plan" to close the base but noted that options were reviewed "on a continuous basis."
"The important thing to understand is that the people that are [imprisoned at] Guantanamo are bad people," he said.
In addition to criticism from human-rights groups, the International Committee of the Red Cross and the FBI have pointed to abuses at the base. Most of those held at the base were captured in Afghanistan and sent to Cuba in hopes they would provide information about al-Qaida. Some have been held for three years without being charged with any crime.
In a statement released yesterday, the Defense Department said the interrogations at the facility have "undoubtedly produced information that has saved the lives of U.S. and coalition forces in the field as well as thwarted threats posed to innocent citizens in this country and abroad."
Hunter said there was "good reason to push back" against proposals to close the detention facility because "we haven't been abusing prisoners."
To illustrate that those housed at Guantanamo had been well treated, Hunter read from a menu indicating that yesterday the detainees were to be fed orange-glazed chicken, fresh fruit, steamed peas and mushrooms and rice pilaf. "We treat them very well," he said.
But Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Nebraska Republican and a member of the Senate's Foreign Relations and Intelligence committees, said on CNN's Late Edition that Guantanamo is one reason the United States is "losing the image war" around the world.
"It's identifiable with, for right or wrong, a part of America that people in the world believe is a power, an empire that pushes people around, we do it our way, we don't live up to our commitments to multilateral institutions," Hagel said.
He said Pentagon leaders had failed to take responsibility for the situation, including harsh interrogation techniques and treatment of prisoners.
The suggestions to close Guantanamo echo arguments made last year after reports of abuses at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. But critics pointed out that if the prison was torn down, taxpayers would need to spend millions to build a replacement.
Time magazine reported details of the way a man suspected of trying to take part in the Sept. 11 plot was interrogated at Guantanamo.
Quoting records of his interrogation, Time said interrogators tried to win cooperation from Mohammed al-Kahtani by making him bark like a dog, hanging pictures of scantily clad women around his neck, forcing him to stand nude and pouring bottles of water on his head.
During late-night interrogations, they sought to keep him awake by playing Christina Aguilera songs, the magazine said.
Al-Kahtani, who authorities believe was supposed to be the 20th hijacker on Sept. 11, tried and failed to enter the United States in August 2001. The next year, U.S. authorities picked him up near the Afghan-Pakistani border.
The Pentagon statement issued yesterday noted that the techniques used on al-Kahtani were "approved and monitored" and that he acknowledged his connection with al-Qaida as a result of the interrogation.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.