The Bush administration distanced itself Monday from remarks by a U.S. diplomat that the suicides of three Arab prisoners at the Guantanamo Bay prison were “good P.R.”
Meanwhile, a leading human rights group called for an independent investigation into their deaths.
Colleen Graffy, deputy assistant U.S. secretary of state for public diplomacy, told the British Broadcasting Corp. that the suicides at the U.S.-run camp in Cuba were a “good P.R. move to draw attention” and “a tactic to further the jihadi cause.”
Her unscripted remarks threw a monkey wrench in the administration’s plan to demonstrate concern over the deaths and respond to rising criticism of the U.S. operation of the prison.
The administration responded Monday. “I would just point out in public that we would not say that it was a P.R. stunt,” State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said. “We have serious concerns anytime anybody takes their own life.”
NBC: Amnesty calls for investigation
Some of that rising criticism came from Amnesty International, the London-based rights group, which called for a civilian-led independent investigation into the deaths of the Guantanamo prisoners.
In a statement issued in Washington, Amnesty officials also called on the administration to give U.N. experts immediate and unrestricted access to the prison camp and allow them to talk privately with detainees.
Amnesty official Rob Freer called the suicides "a tragedy waiting to happen.”
“A fully independent investigation is a matter of absolute urgency, particularly in the light of statements from high-ranking members of the U.S. military and government, which risk undermining the investigation launched by the Naval Criminal Investigation Service," Freer said in the statement.
Amnesty called Graffy's comments “a chilling disregard for human life.”
The group also condemned a statement by Navy Rear Adm. Harry Harris, the camp commander at Guantanamo, who told reporters Sunday that the detainees “have no regard for human life, neither ours nor their own.”
“I believe this was not an act of desperation but an act of asymmetric warfare against us,” Harris said.
Amnesty said Harris' comments were “entirely inappropriate.” The group has been calling for the Guantanamo camp to be closed for more than a year, and recently a United Nations panel also called for shutting it down.
Military officials said the suicides were coordinated acts of protest, but human rights activists and defense attorneys said the deaths signaled the desperation of many of the 460 prisoners held on suspicion of links to al-Qaida and the Taliban.
Only 10 prisoners have been charged with crimes after more than four years behind bars. The Supreme Court is expected to rule this month on whether Bush overstepped his power in setting up war crimes trials for those detainees.
President notes ‘serious concern’
Bush expressed “serious concern” Saturday over the suicides, and he directed an aggressive effort by his administration to reach out diplomatically while it investigates.
Within hours of the deaths, the Bush administration had contacted the United Nations, the European Union, most European nations individually, the embassies of Mideast and near-Mideast countries, the International Committee of the Red Cross, bipartisan members of the congressional leadership and the ranking Republican and Democratic members of the House and Senate Foreign Relations and Intelligence committees, White House press secretary Tony Snow said Saturday evening.
“He wants to make sure that this thing is done right from all points of view,” Snow said.
Graffy’s boss, Undersecretary of State Karen Hughes, is charged with improving the U.S. image in the Arab world. The former White House communications adviser and longtime Bush aide heads an office at the State Department that monitors and responds to inaccurate or distorted portrayals of U.S. views and actions in the Arab media.
Graffy’s remarks were quickly picked up in the Arab press. “Her comments quickly appeared to be bad P.R. moves for the U.S. administration,” an article on the Web site of Lebanon’s The Daily Star newspaper said.
Two Saudis and one Yemeni hanged themselves Saturday, the first successful suicides at the base after dozens of attempts.
Bone of contention with allies
The administration’s detentions at Guantanamo Bay are a point of contention between the United States and many of its allies in Europe and the Mideast, and the suicides renewed international pressure to close the prison.
The European Union said on Monday that it would urge Bush to shut it down when he comes to Europe for a trans-Atlantic summit next week.
“Humanitarian standards and human rights have to be observed” in the fight against terrorism, Austrian Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik told reporters. “For the United States, a country committed to freedom, the rule of law and due process, this is an anomaly.”
A group of prominent religious leaders endorsed a statement, which is set to appear in The New York Times on Tuesday, protesting any American use of torture as “morally intolerable.” The White House has said the U.S. does not condone or practice torture.
Religious leaders: ‘Let America abolish torture now’
“Nothing less is at stake in the torture abuse crisis than the soul of our nation,” the ad reads. “Let America abolish torture now — without exceptions.”
Among the signers are the Rev. Ted Haggard, president of the National Association of Evangelicals; the Rev. Rick Warren, author of “The Purpose Driven Life”; and retiring Roman Catholic Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. Organizers say former President Jimmy Carter has also signed onto the ad, along with several Jewish, Muslim and black leaders.