WASHINGTON-Momentum to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, long a stain on America's international reputation, appears to be building among the most senior members of George W. Bush's inner circle.
The White House issued a statement last night denying a decision on closing the internment camp on the U.S. naval base in Cuba was "imminent" but reiterating that the U.S. president has long expressed a desire to close down the prison.
The administration responded after Associated Press reported that at a meeting today, senior officials were to discuss closing Guantanamo and moving the "enemy combatant" inmates to one or more defence department facilities, including the maximum-security military prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. or a naval brig at Charleston, S.C. The news service quoted unnamed administration officials as saying there was a growing consensus to shut down the facility in Cuba.
Following that report, National Security Council spokesperson Gordon Johndroe said the meeting - of senior cabinet secretaries, intelligence and military officials - was no longer on today's agenda, although he gave no reason.
The Washington Post reported that senior Bush administration officials are engaged in active discussions about closing the detention facility but deep divisions remain regarding the fate of its inmates should the prison close.
A senior U.S. State Department official also told a congressional hearing here yesterday that he was "fully and acutely" aware that the facility had become a lightning rod for criticism around the world and a "source of frustration" for the Bush administration.
"Everyone will agree these people need to be detained - somewhere," John Bellinger said.
In spite of a series of calls over many months by Democrats and civil rights organizations, the Bush administration has resisted calls to close Guantanamo and move the prisoners - called by former defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld "the worst of the worst"- into the U.S. court system where they could challenge their detention.
Canadian Omar Khadr, 20, is the only detainee from a Western country among the estimated 380 detainees at the camp, familiarly known as Gitmo. Australia's David Hicks returned home last month under a guilty-plea agreement that allowed him to serve a nine-month sentence in Australia.
Khadr was one of three detainees charged under the Military Commissions Act, which Bush signed into law last fall, and faced charges of spying, conspiracy, providing material support, attempted murder and murder in violation of the law of war.
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But a military judge in Guantanamo Bay dismissed those charges in a surprise decision earlier this month when he said newly created military commissions had no jurisdiction to hear the case. The Pentagon has appealed his ruling.
Other than with Hicks's plea deal, no detainee has so far faced trial.
"It has taken a long time for this administration to face facts," said Dennis Edney, Khadr's Canadian lawyer. "They cannot constitute a proper military commission and they cannot lock prisoners away at Guantanamo Bay without facing international condemnation.
"I'm not saying they are learning, but I am saying they are responding to international pressure."
Bush has often said the U.S. no longer wishes to be the world's jailer, but the White House has had difficulty finding places to take some of the detainees. It has criticized some nations that condemn the U.S. for holding prisoners without charge, then refuse to repatriate some of those very same inmates.
Defence Secretary Robert Gates has also publicly stated he would like to close Guantanamo. And in Spain this month, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said she didn't think anyone wanted to see the Guantanamo Bay camp open one day longer than needed.
Johndroe said for Guantanamo Bay to be shut down in "a responsible way," a number of steps have to be followed, including the establishment of military commissions and repatriation to the home countries of detainees who have been cleared. "These steps have not been completed," he said, "and no decision on the future of Guantanamo Bay is imminent."
Former secretary of state Colin Powell minced no words when he told NBC's Meet the Press this month that he would shut down Guantanamo immediately and move the detainees to U.S. soil.
"I would do it because, every morning, I pick up a paper and some authoritarian figure, some person somewhere, is using Guantanamo to hide their own misdeeds," Powell said. "Essentially we have shaken the belief that the world had in America's justice system by keeping a place like Guantanamo open and creating things like the military commission."
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