Video: Guantanamo Bay’s future

updated 6/15/2005 3:38:05 PM ET 2005-06-15T19:38:05

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter challenged Congress Wednesday to help define legal rights of terrorism-era detainees at Guantanamo Bay, bemoaning a "crazy quilt" system. Top Pentagon and law-enforcement officials defended current practices at the U.S. military prison camp.

"It may be that it's too hot to handle for Congress, may be that it's too complex to handle for Congress, or it may be that Congress wants to sit back as we customarily do," Specter, R-Pa., said as his panel took testimony on practices and policies at the U.S. military camp at an American Navy base in Cuba.

"But at any rate, Congress hasn't acted," Specter said.

The hearing came against a backdrop of growing reports of U.S. abuse of terror-war prisoners at the camp.

Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the senior Democrat on the committee, called the prison "an international embarrassment to our nation, to our ideals and remains a festering threat to our security."

Military and Justice Department witnesses claimed that extraordinary steps were being taken to protect unspecified rights of prisoners and to process their cases.

Rear Admiral James M. McGarrah, who monitors the "enemy combatant" detention program for the Navy, told the panel that of the 558 detainees given hearings at Guantanamo, Cuba, 520 were "properly classified" as enemy combatants.

Of the remaining 38, he said, 23 have been released so far.

‘Unprecedented and historic action’
"Because of the highly unusual nature of the global war on terror, and because we do not want to detain any person longer than as necessary, we've taken this unprecedented and historic action to establish this process to permit enemy combatants to be heard while conflict is ongoing," McGarrah said.

Michael Wiggins, deputy associate attorney general, told the committee that each Guantanamo detainee was given a formal hearing in front of a review panel to ensure they were all properly classified as enemy combatants.

But he acknowledged that the detainees were not being held "for criminal justice purposes, and is not part of our nation's criminal justice system."

Their detention "serves the vital military objectives of preventing captured combatants from rejoining the conflict and gathering intelligence to further the overall war effort, and to prevent additional attacks against our country," Wiggins said.

"Detainees enjoy some constitutional rights," he said. But he suggested it was hard to specify just which ones.

Specter said the "Congress has its work cut out for it" as it studies the procedures used with detainees being held indefinitely at Guantanamo.

"I think any fair analysis would say that we have a crazy quilt which we are dealing with here," said Specter, citing disappointment with his own past attempts at legislation to more clearly define rights and procedures for enemy-combatant detainees.

President Bush last week appeared to leave open the possibility that the prison would be closed, but Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Tuesday he thought the prison would be needed for years to come. Rumsfeld said the military has no other facility that could accommodate that many prisoners.

On Wednesday, White House press secretary Scott McClellan appeared to try to tamp down talk of shutting down Guantanamo, saying that Rumsfeld was "talking for the administration" with his comments.

No plans for closing Guantanamo
"There are no plans, as we have said, for closing or shutting down Guantanamo Bay at this time," McClellan said. "But we're always looking about how best to keep America safe and how to deal with these detainees."

Air Force Brig. Gen. Thomas L. Hemingway told the panel, "America is at war. It is not a metaphorical war. It is as tangible as the blood, the rubble that littered the streets of Manhattan on Sept. 11, 2001."

Of the detainees, "We are holding them humanely," Hemingway said.

Asked how long they could be held, Hemingway said: "I think we can hold them as long as the conflict endures."

Leahy questioned the administration's assertion that the prison camp was an essential part of the U.S.-led war on terror. "All of us know this war will not end in our lifetime," Leahy said.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy said the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo stained the nation's reputation on human rights, inflamed the Muslim world and had become "a powerful recruiting tool for terrorists."

"Closing Guantanamo makes sense," Kennedy said.

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