WASHINGTON - That was quite a stretch by an Amnesty International official in branding the prisoner detention camps at Guantanamo Bay "the gulag of our time," considering the millions of deaths meted out by the Stalinist regime during the Cold War.
But President Bush's response that the comparison with the Soviet prisons was "absurd" and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's labeling of the word as "reprehensible" have not silenced criticism that human rights are being seriously abridged at the U.S. facility in Cuba and therefore it should be shut down.
The Senate Judiciary Committee is to hold a hearing today on what its ranking Democrat, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, has called "a legal black hole" where more than 500 detainees have been held without specific charges against them and without legal counsel, some for more than three years.
The hearing comes amid a growing clamor to know what's going on at what the Navy calls "Gitmo." A week ago, former Democratic President Jimmy Carter said the Guantanamo prison should be closed because "the U.S. continues to suffer terrible embarrassment and a blow to our reputation" as a result of "reports concerning abuse of prisoners in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo."
Mr. Carter said the Amnesty International label of the camp as "a gulag" was misplaced. But the reports of such prison abuse, he added, did not sit well in the face of Mr. Bush's "bold reminder that America is determined to promote freedom and democracy around the world."
A few days later, Republican Sen. Mel Martinez of Florida joined the Carter complaint, warning that Guantanamo had "become an icon for bad stories."
On Sunday, fellow Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska chimed in, saying the United States was "losing the image war around the world" because of the prison facilities.
But Vice President Dick Cheney has quickly jumped into the breach, telling Fox News that "at present there's no plan to close Gitmo." Further, he said, Americans needed to remember that "the people that are at Guantanamo are bad people" captured on "the battlefield of Afghanistan or rounded up as part of the al-Qaida network." He said the detainees had been screened, some released to their home countries, and "what's left is hard core."
In a speech at the National Press Club on Monday, Mr. Cheney disputed Mr. Hagel's argument about the negative impact abroad. "Does this hurt us from the standpoint of international opinion?" he asked. "I frankly don't think so." He suggested that "those who are most urgently advocating that we shut down Guantanamo probably don't agree with our policies anyway."
The demands for closing Guantanamo are similar to those last spring calling for the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq to be torn down after disclosure of widespread abuses by U.S. guards against detainees. But the prisons are not the problem. It's the prisoners' treatment, said by Amnesty International and other watchdogs to be in violation of international law.
In a sense, the recent furor over alleged desecration of the Quran has been a sideline to the issues of physical abuse of detainees and denial of their legal rights. The administration for a time used a flawed report by Newsweek on such desecration to turn the spotlight on the news media's conduct.
But with the Senate Judiciary Committee focusing on the treatment of detainees directly, the issue of prisoner abuse is keeping the administration on the defensive. As Mr. Carter noted, such stories undercut Mr. Bush's case for spreading the American brand of freedom and democracy elsewhere.
Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Wednesdays and Fridays.