By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service
May 22, 2009 - President Barack Obama has little choice in closing the military-run prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, because its name alone is a "taint" on U.S. war efforts, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said today. "The truth is, it's probably one of the finest prisons in the world today, but it has a taint," Gates said in an interview on NBC's "Today" show. "The name itself is a condemnation."
The president said yesterday that the use of now-banned interrogations techniques at Guantanamo set back the moral authority of the United States. Intended as a tool to combat terrorism, the prison became a symbol used by al-Qaida to recruit more terrorists, he said.
"Indeed, the existence of Guantanamo likely created more terrorists around the world than it ever detained," Obama said.
Just after taking office, the president ordered the prison's closure within a year. But that task has proven easier said than done. On May 20, the Senate stripped from a supplemental spending bill $80 million earmarked to fund closing the prison, asking first for a more detailed plan.
At issue is what will happen to the 240 detainees left in the prison. Many in the United States are wary of transferring them to prisons here. But Gates, a former CIA director, said in the interview today that many terrorists already are in U.S. "supermax" prisons.
"This started 20 years ago when I was at CIA, and we captured a Hezbollah terrorist who had been involved in killing an American sailor on an aircraft that had been taken hostage in Beirut. We brought him to the United States, put him on trial and put him in prison," Gates said.
The secretary said much of the worry is unfounded, and that there are no plans to release terrorists on American soil.
"The truth is, there's a lot of fear-mongering about this," Gates said. "We've never had an escape from a supermax prison, and that's where these guys will go; and if not one of the existing ones, we'll create a new one."
Defense department officials said the detention center has housed nearly 800 suspected terrorists captured in Afghanistan, Iraq and other places since the start of the global war on terrorism that followed the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. Of the more than 500 detainees who have been transferred from Defense Department custody, 18 allegedly have resumed terrorist activities.
Last week, the president moved to reform and revive the military commissions at Guantanamo that have been stalled since the change in administrations. The department has sent a handful of changes to Congress that officials say will afford more protections to defendants at the commissions.
The rule changes do not require a change in law, but the law does require that the department give Congress 60 days' notice before the rules can be implemented. Department officials will ask for a 120-day continuance for pending military commission cases while Congress reviews the rules.