Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on Thursday played down the idea of closing the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, saying such a move would raise questions about what would happen to the prisoners.
“A whole lot of questions come to mind. If you closed it, where would you go,” he told a news conference at NATO headquarters.
Amid mounting complaints and calls for the facility to be shut down, including a broadside from former president and human rights champion Jimmy Carter, President Bush on Wednesday left open the door to its eventual closing.
“We’re exploring all alternatives as to how best to do the main objective, which is to protect America. What we don’t want to do is let somebody out that comes back and harms us,” Bush said in an interview with Fox News Channel when asked whether it should be shut down.
Rumsfeld, asked about Bush’s remarks, did not contradict his boss, but said he understood that what “the president said is that we’re always looking at ways to improve our operations.”
The Pentagon earlier this week ruled out any prospect of shutting down the Cuba-based detention center and Rumsfeld on a stop in Norway on Wednesday reinforced that line.
“I know of no one in the U.S. government, in the executive branch, that is considering closing Guantanamo,” he told reporters, within hours of Bush’s comments being broadcast in the Fox News interview.
During the NATO news conference, Rumsfeld said Washington’s goal has been to ensure that people involved in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people or who were captured on battlefields in Afghanistan, Iraq or elsewhere be kept off the street “so they don’t kill more people.”
Aiming to prevent future attacks, the suspects have been interviewed, in some cases providing intelligence that saved lives, he said.
In all, 70,000 to 80,000 people have been detained and the majority have been released, Rumsfeld said.
The Pentagon has turned over suspects to their countries of origin “when we have been able to negotiate with the country an agreement that they would handle them in a way that was humane and appropriate,” he said.
It would like to release many more to Iraqi and Afghan governments but both lack appropriate prison and criminal justice systems.
The aim is to have these suspects “off the street, but in the hands of the countries of origin for the most part,” he added.
Calls for closure of the Guantanamo prison camp for foreign terrorism suspects have risen since Amnesty International set off a furor last month by calling it a “gulag” and comparing it to the brutal Soviet system of forced labor camps in which millions died.
Adding to the drumbeat, the United Nations said on Wednesday that 6,000 of Iraq’s 10,000 prisoners were in the hands of the U.S. military and that thousands are detained without due process in apparent violation of international law.