WASHINGTON – Senior Bush administration officials are engaged in active discussions about closing the U.S. military detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, but deep divisions remain regarding the fate of the approximately 375 foreign detainees currently held there should the prison close, according to numerous officials familiar with the ongoing dialogue.
President Bush has stated publicly his desire to shut down the facility, which has drawn significant criticism and has damaged the United States’ reputation internationally. However, debates over the legal implications and logistical hurdles to closing Guantanamo have highlighted the difficulties of such a move.
Despite rising interest among the highest levels of the administration to resolve this issue before the end of the Bush presidency, viable alternatives have proved elusive, officials said Thursday.
Key discussions have centered on how to repatriate roughly 75 remaining detainees who have been cleared for release or transfer, how to put roughly 80 detainees on trial following major failures in the Military Commissions Act, and where to indefinitely hold an additional 220 detainees the government deems too dangerous for release. While there have been preliminary talks of bringing them to military detention centers in the United States, there has been significant pushback from Vice President Dick Cheney as well as from the Justice and Homeland Security departments, and officials said Thursday that they are not on the brink of a decision.
“The President has long expressed a desire to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility and to do so in a responsible way,” National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe said in a statement. “A number of steps need to take place before that can happen, such as setting up military commissions and the repatriation to their home countries of detainees who have been cleared for release. These and other steps have not been completed. No decisions on the future of Guantanamo Bay are imminent.”
The Associated Press reported Thursday that a meeting of several top Bush administration officials about Guantanamo’s future was scheduled for today, but the White House denied such a meeting was taking place. Two administration officials said Thursday night that a meeting about several topics is scheduled for today but that the Guantanamo issue was removed from the agenda after news of the meeting broke.
Still, officials said the discussions are not yet at a decision point because too many issues remain unresolved. Justice officials have argued against moving Guantanamo detainees to the United States because it would immediately grant the alleged terrorists habeas corpus rights, which would launch another round of legal battles in U.S. federal courts. Homeland Security officials have opposed such a move because it would mean bringing some of the people on the nation’s terror watch list – including the highest-value detainees the U.S. has in its custody, such as Khalid Sheik Mohammed – inside U.S. borders. Cheney’s office also has vehemently opposed bringing the detainees into this country.
The move toward closing the facility is rooted in part in the international outrage its existence has provoked, drawing criticism from international human rights groups, legal advocacy organizations and governments who can point to the indefinite detentions there as an example of U.S. hypocrisy about legal rights.
“Of course people are talking about closing Guantanamo, of course,” a senior administration official said. Defense Secretary Robert “Gates has said he wanted to close it down.” Secretary of State Condoleezza “Rice has spoken out on the issue. So far, it’s a tide but not a wave. They don’t want to leave this behind. They want to resolve this.”
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