By John J. Kruzel
American Forces Press Service
May 26, 2009 - 'Fear-mongering' is clouding the national debate about closing the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said yesterday. During an NBC-TV interview that aired Memorial Day, Gates spoke about the closing of the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, facility, the Taliban's presence in Afghanistan and relations with Iran. He also expressed confidence that Americans recognize the sacrifice of U.S. servicemembers.
Speaking about President Barack Obama's decision to close Guantanamo Bay, Gates underscored the issue of the fates of current detainees.
"One of the main points the president made was that he had no interest whatsoever in releasing publicly detainees who might come back to harm Americans," Gates said. "The real issue is, do you close Guantanamo and put them in a prison in the United States...or are you forced to keep Guantanamo open because all the other possibilities are closed off legislatively?"
Gates said that Guantanamo is "probably one of the finest prisons in the world today, but it has a taint. The name itself is a condemnation. What the president was saying is [Guantanamo] will be an advertisement for al-Qaida as long as it's open."
"We have many terrorists in U.S. prisons today. I mean, 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.
He said that fear-mongering has stirred an emotional debate about the merits of trying and potentially holding terrorism suspects on American soil, as the United States did during Gates' tenure at the CIA.
"The truth is, there's a lot of fear-mongering about this," he continued. "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."
About 240 detainees are currently held at Guantanamo. According to an unclassified fact sheet released today by the Pentagon, the Defense Intelligence Agency reported 14 percent of former Guantanamo detainees confirmed or suspected of reengaging in terrorist activities.
"Of the more than 530 Guantanamo detainees transferred from Department of Defense custody at Guantanamo Bay, 27 were confirmed and 47 were suspected of reengaging in terrorist activity," the fact sheet states. The report is based on information available as of mid-March.
Some former Guantanamo detainees, the report said, "are known to have reengaged in terrorist activity associated with the al-Qaida network, and have been arrested for reengaging in terrorist activities including facilitating the travel of terrorists into war zones, providing funds to al-Qaida, and supporting and associating with known terrorists."
On Afghanistan, Gates expressed doubt that Taliban leaders would be willing to reconcile with the government on Kabul's terms – at least until the momentum shifts in favor of Afghanistan.
"The end of all such wars involves some measure of reconciliation," he said. "We've seen it in Iraq. And so the real issue is, will these guys reconcile on the terms of the Afghan government, or are they dictating terms to the Afghan government?
"I think the view of most of us is that until the momentum of the battle turns against the Taliban, ... that the likelihood of any kind of reconciliation on the part of the leadership of the Taliban is very small," he said.
Asked about Obama's approach to Iran, Gates revealed little, saying only that it's common that presidents ask their military planners to have a range of contingencies available.
"All I would say is that, as a result of our dialogue with the president, we've refreshed our plans and all options are on the table," he said.
On the issue of troop support, Gates said in the Memorial Day interview that he believes Americans sincerely appreciate the sacrifices servicemembers make.
"Americans really appreciate our men and women in uniform," he said. "I think there is a total recognition in this country of the sacrifice these men and women in uniform make."
The Defense secretary said American support is on full display in ceremonies honoring the nation's fallen. He added that the personalized letters he sends to the surviving family members is the hardest part of his job.
"You really see it -- tragically, but also in a heartwarming way -- when our fallen heroes are brought home to be buried, and you've got whole towns turning out," he said. "It's extraordinary."
(American Forces Press Service reporter Gerry J. Gilmore contributed to this report).