WASHINGTON -- The White House postponed a meeting of the administration's top senior foreign and defense policy officials scheduled for today to debate the future of the terrorism detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, but officials said the issue of whether to close the facility is likely to be discussed again.
The Associated Press had reported earlier that the administration is nearing a decision to close the facility and move its terror suspects to military prisons elsewhere.
Senior administration officials said yesterday that a consensus is building for a proposal to shut the center and transfer detainees to one or more Defense Department facilities, including the maximum-security military prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., where they could face trial.
The high-level meeting was scheduled to help senior leaders decide whether the Guantanamo prison could be closed and its detainees moved to prisons in the U.S. without risking their release by the new courts.
After legal defeats and growing criticism at home and abroad, administration officials have begun reconsidering the future of Guantanamo and U.S. detainee policies.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has urged that it be closed and former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell called last week for its shutdown.
But the White House denied last night that a decision was at hand, noting that several important issues - including the repatriation of detainees who have been marked for release and the setting up of new war crimes tribunals - have yet to be addressed.
"No decisions on the future of Guantanamo Bay are imminent," said Gordon Johndroe, a White House spokesman.
He added that today's meeting "is no longer on the schedule" but that senior officials are expected to take up the issue again.
Three senior administration officials spoke about the discussions on condition of anonymity because they were internal deliberations, the Associated Press said.
Expected to consult soon, according to the officials, were Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Gates, Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff, National Intelligence Director Mike McConnell and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Peter Pace.
The administration's internal debates come after a series of legal setbacks to its detention policies, and to plans for war crimes trials for the first of approximately 380 prisoners being held on the Cuban naval base.
This month, two military judges threw out the only two pending war crimes cases against alleged al-Qaida and Taliban associates. The judges said neither detainee had been properly classified to stand trial.
The White House is also under increasing congressional pressure to change its policy toward Guantanamo, with several bills under consideration that would force the administration's hand.
Yesterday, two Democratic lawmakers, Rep. Alcee L. Hastings of Florida and Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin of Maryland, told a human rights commission that Guantanamo must be closed if the United States is to regain credibility and authority on human rights.
"The damage done to the United States goes beyond undermining our status as a global leader on human rights," Cardin said. "Our policies and practices regarding Guantanamo and other aspects of our detainee policies have undermined our authority to engage in the effective counterterrorism measures that are necessary for the very security of this country."
Sen. Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat and author of one of the bills that would shutter Guantanamo, said he was encouraged by reports that the Bush administration was moving toward closing the facility.
"The right thing to do is to close the Guantanamo Bay prison as expeditiously as possible, while requiring that criminal detainees be transferred to state-of-the-art, maximum security facilities within the United States," Harkin said in a statement.
Gates seeks closing
Gates has acknowledged in congressional testimony that he has been pushing the administration to close Guantanamo and to move the detainees to U.S. military courts.
Gates testified that the Guantanamo Bay facility's history has given it a "taint," and that war crimes trials held there would lack international credibility.
Johndroe, the White House spokesman, noted that Bush has "long expressed a desire" to close Guantanamo, but that the president wanted to make sure it was done in "a responsible way."
Hundreds of detainees from around the world have been held without trial at Guantanamo since the first prisoners arrived in January 2002.
Located at the oldest overseas U.S. naval base, the prison has been at the center of worldwide criticism over American handling of detainees and Bush's special system for holding and prosecuting them.
Of the 380 detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Pentagon officials say they expect about 80 to be put on trial for war crimes.
About 85 of the men are to be released or transferred to other countries.
The rest are in legal limbo, without the right to appeal the military's decision to continue holding them.
If the detainees were moved to U.S. soil, legal scholars argue, they likely would be covered by the right to challenge their detention, known as habeas corpus.
The Guantanamo Bay prison was set up in 2002 to house terror suspects captured in military operations, mostly in Afghanistan.
Because the facility is in Cuba, the administration has argued that detainees there are not covered by rights and protections afforded to those in U.S. prisons.
Peter Spiegel writes for the Los Angeles Times. The Associated Press contributed to this article.