WASHINGTON - One military defense attorney said that he was allowed to meet with his client at the U.S. detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, only to negotiate a guilty plea. Another lawyer said his client was confined there after a cursory hearing in which the only evidence was the man's unsupported confessions, signed after prolonged torture in an Egyptian jail.
As the notorious prison camp comes under increased scrutiny - a top Senate Democrat called it yesterday an "international embarrassment," another said it had become a "powerful recruiting tool for terrorists" - U.S. officials are faced not only with the question of whether to close the facility, but also what legal review to afford the more than 500 men now detained indefinitely at Guantanamo Bay.
The Senate Judiciary Committee weighed in yesterday, with Chairman Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, holding a hearing on the troubled facility and suggesting that Congress should set deadlines for adjudicating the detainee cases. Other lawmakers, including Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., a Delaware Democrat, called for an independent commission to evaluate the camp.
The Bush administration, meanwhile, offered mixed signals about its plans for a facility that has contributed to criticism about U.S. detention policies in the war on terror.
Speaking to reporters in Brussels, Belgium, Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales said top officials were evaluating "whether or not this is the right approach - is this the place, is this the right manner in which to deal with unlawful combatants?"
At the White House, press secretary Scott McClellan said there are no plans to close the Guantanamo camp. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld had said the same thing a day earlier, describing the $100 million facility as a crucial part of the fight against terrorism. But last week, President Bush appeared to leave open the possibility of closing it.
"You would hope that Guantanamo Bay would not be necessary [eventually], because you've either returned people to their countries of origin or you've otherwise moved forward on the legal process and dealt with their situation," McClellan said. "But you're asking a very hypothetical question at this point."
More than three years after the first detainees arrived at the Navy facility, not one has faced charges before a military tribunal. And a year after the Supreme Court ruled that foreign terror suspects can challenge their detention in U.S. courts, the details of how they can do it remain unclear.
Congress, for now, has shown few signs that it wants to get involved. "It may be that it's too hot to handle for Congress, maybe it's too complex to handle for Congress," Specter said yesterday.
Guantanamo has emerged as a powerful symbol of problems in the U.S.-led war on terror, eclipsing last year's focus on detainee abuses at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Military officials confirmed this month several incidents in which guards at the camp had desecrated the Quran, the Muslim holy book. Recently released government documents have shown widespread detainee allegations of abuse and mistreatment.
Last month, the human rights group Amnesty International called Guantanamo the "gulag of our times," a reference to Soviet-era labor camps, and prominent leaders, including former President Jimmy Carter, have said the camp should be closed.
Top officials testify
Yesterday, top Pentagon and Justice Department officials defended the treatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay, saying the prisoners received a fair, timely hearing to determine whether they were being held with good cause.
"As in virtually every other armed conflict in the nation's history, the military has determined that many of those individuals should be detained during the conflict as enemy combatants," Deputy Associate Attorney General J. Michael Wiggins told lawmakers. "Such detention is not for criminal justice purposes and is not part of our nation's criminal justice system."
Rear Adm. James M. McGarrah, who overseas the detention program, told lawmakers that review hearings were conducted for each of the 558 detainees held at Guantanamo Bay in the past year and that 520 of them were found to be properly classified as "enemy combatants."
Officials determined that the other 38 detainees could be released.
Of those still being held, 12 have been referred to military commissions and four have been charged.
But adding to the widespread criticism of the camp, civilian lawyer Joseph Margulies, one of the lead attorneys in the detainee cases decided by the Supreme Court a year ago, called the hearing process at Guantanamo a "sham."
"They mock this nation's commitment to due process, and it is past time for this mockery to end," said Margulies at the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.
One detainee he represented, Mamdouh Habib, was held in an Egyptian jail for six months and subjected to repeated torture, including being forced into a dark, windowless room that was then filled with water to his neck, Margulies testified.
At Habib's hearing at Guantanamo, the only evidence against him was uncorroborated statements he had signed under duress while being held in Cairo, Margulies said. Within days of those details becoming public in a federal court filing in Washington, U.S. officials released Habib to his family in Australia.
Another lawyer, Navy Lt. Commander Charles D. Swift told the Senate panel that he was told by military prosecutors that he could only meet with his assigned client at Guantanamo - a Yemeni who once worked as a driver for Osama bin Laden - on the condition that he work out a plea deal.
"We can't say that this is an independent and fair process," Swift said. "It's not befitting of America."
The trial for Swift's client, Salim Ahmed Hamdan, was about to get under way in November when Judge James Robertson of the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., stopped the proceedings on the grounds that the military commissions created to try suspected terrorists were unconstitutional. That decision is on appeal by the federal government.
Brig. Gen. Thomas L. Hemingway, who heads the Defense Department's Office of Military Commissions, rejected Swift's contention yesterday that his client had been held in isolation for eight months and suffered from post-traumatic stress syndrome and depression.
"His recollection of these events, and my views of the procedures, are considerably different," Hemingway said.
The attorneys' allegations gave new ammunition to Senate critics, with Vermont Democrat Patrick J. Leahy yesterday calling the Guantanamo camp an "international embarrassment to our nation and to our ideals." Massachusetts Democrat Edward M. Kennedy said the detention center has "stained our reputation on human rights, inflamed the Muslim world and become a powerful recruiting tool for terrorists."
William P. Barr, who served as U.S. attorney general under President George Bush, said the criticism surrounding Guantanamo is unfounded and ignores the realities of war.
"We've been fighting wars for 230 years. As the Supreme Court recognized, fighting wars is about destroying the enemy's forces, either by killing them or capturing them. And when you capture them, you detain them," Barr said. "There's nothing punitive about it. This is not a legal proceeding. There's no need to bring charges. They are being held because they were identified on the battlefield as threats to our forces and to our military mission."
Margulies told lawmakers that hundreds of detainees have been held for too long on the word of U.S. officials that they are "the worst of the worst."
"If the administration can prove in a federal [court] hearing that these people belong in custody, then so be it," he said. "But bring that proof on. They have been there more than three years, and it is time to put up or shut up."