WASHINGTON — The White House acknowledged Friday that a meeting to discuss the future of the Guantanamo Bay detention facility had been planned but was canceled late Thursday, and confirmed that the United States is helping build a prison in Afghanistan that would take some prisoners now at Guantanamo Bay.
The White House insisted the new facility was not meant as an alternative to the detainee facility in Cuba.
The Bush administration wants to close Guantanamo Bay and move its terror suspects to prisons elsewhere, but says no decision about the status of the facility is imminent. White House deputy press secretary Dana Perino said the United States has released about 80 of some 375 detainees, and hopes to transfer several dozen Afghans back to Afghanistan in the near future.
"America does not have any intention of being the world's jailer," Perino said, adding that the administration wants other nations to take their prisoners back, and treat them humanely, but not let them back on the battlefield.
She said President Bush has directed Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to work with her counterparts around the world to try to repatriate the detainees to their home countries, make sure that they are held safely and treated humanely and that they are not allowed to perpetrate acts of terrorism.
Flashpoint for the U.S.
The Guantanamo Bay prison, set up in 2002 to house terror suspects captured in military operations, mostly in Afghanistan, has been a flash point for criticism of the Bush administration at home and abroad.
Human rights advocates and foreign leaders have repeatedly called for the shutdown of Guantanamo, and the prison is regarded by many as proof of U.S. double standards on fundamental freedoms in the war on terrorism.
Some of the detainees come from countries that are U.S. allies, including Britain, Saudi Arabia and Australia. Each of those governments raised complaints about the conditions or duration of detentions, or about the possibility that detainees might face death sentences.
Sources: Momentum to close Gitmo
Senior administration officials said Thursday that a consensus is building for a plan to shut the detention center and transfer detainees to one of more Defense Department facilities, including the maximum-security military prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. Perino would not comment on whether detainees were headed to Kansas.
Bush's national security and legal advisers had been scheduled to discuss the move at a meeting Friday, the officials said, but after The Associated Press reported it, the White House said the meeting would not take place that day and no decision on Guantanamo Bay's status is imminent.
Three senior administration officials spoke about the discussions on condition of anonymity because they were internal deliberations.
Perino said the meeting was canceled "very late" on Thursday because it was determined that a "meeting wasn't necessary at this time."
"There was going to be a meeting in which Guantanamo detainee issues were discussed today, but that has been taken off the schedule," Perino said Friday. "That doesn't mean that people don't continue to work on what the president has asked them to do, which is work towards getting that facility closed."
Expected to consult soon, according to the officials, were Rice, Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff, National Intelligence Director Mike McConnell and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Peter Pace.
The White House at first denied a meeting was planned. "No decisions on the future of Guantanamo Bay are imminent, and there will not be a White House meeting tomorrow," said White House spokesman Scott Stanzel.
Stanzel added that "the president has long expressed a desire to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility and to do so in a responsible way. 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 released.
"These and other steps havenot been completed," Stanzel said.
Previous plans to close Guantanamo have run into resistance from Cheney, Gonzales and former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. But officials said the new suggestion is gaining momentum with at least tacit support from the State and Homeland Security departments, the Pentagon, and the intelligence directorate.
Cheney's office and the Justice Department have been dead-set against the step, arguing that moving "unlawful" enemy combatant suspects to the U.S. would give them undeserved legal rights.
They could still block the proposal, but pressure to close Guantanamo has been building since a Supreme Court decision last year that found a previous system for prosecuting enemy combatants illegal. Recent rulings by military judges threw out charges against two terrorism suspects under a new tribunal scheme.
Those decisions have dealt a blow to the administration's efforts to begin prosecuting dozens of Guantanamo detainees regarded as the nation's most dangerous terror suspects.
Moves on the Hill
In Congress, recently introduced legislation would require Guantanamo's closure. One measure would designate Fort Leavenworth as the new detention facility.
Another bill would grant new rights to those held at Guantanamo Bay, including access to lawyers regardless of whether the prisoners are put on trial. Still another would allow detainees to protest their detentions in federal court, something they are now denied.
Gates, who took over the Pentagon after Rumsfeld was forced out last year, has said Congress and the administration should work together to allow the U.S. to permanently imprison some of the more dangerous Guantanamo Bay detainees elsewhere so the facility can be closed.
Military officials told Congress this month that the prison at Fort Leavenworth has 70 open beds and that the brig at a naval base in Charleston, S.C., has space for an additional 100 prisoners.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.