Vice President Dick Cheney wants to keep the controversial Guantanamo Bay detention center open, claiming the prison, called a “gulag” by human rights group, was not hurting America’s image abroad.

Cheney’s hard-line stance puts him at odds with President Bush, who has left the door open to the eventual closing of the detention center, saying he was willing to look at all alternatives.

And even though abuses at the prison have been documented by both media reports and an official Pentagon probe, Cheney still thinks Guantanamo Bay is serving a useful function.

“Given the nature of the conflict that we’re involved in, there would need to be some kind of a facility that would allow you to detain people who are enemy combatants,” Cheney said in a question-and-answer session at a journalism awards ceremony.

In fact, he said, “if we didn’t have that facility at Guantanamo to undertake this activity, we’d have to have it someplace else, because they’re a vital source of intelligence information.”

Calls for closing the prison camp for foreign terrorism suspects have mounted in the past few weeks after Amnesty International calling it a “gulag.” Democrats have said the Guantanamo Bay was contributing to a U.S. image problem in the Muslim world.

“The stain of Guantanamo has become the primary recruiting tool for our enemies,” Vermont Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy said.

Cheney said it was his feeling that “the track record there is on the whole pretty good, and that this is an essential part of our strategy of prevailing and winning in the ongoing war on terror.”

“Now, does this hurt us from the standpoint of international opinion? I, frankly, don’t think so. And my own personal view of it is that those who are most urgently advocating that we shut down Guantanamo probably don’t agree with our policies anyway,” Cheney said.

Cheney said if the more than 500 detainees at Guantanamo Bay were to be released, then the United States would be “putting a lot of bad guys back on the street to do exactly what they started to do in the first place.”

To support that claim, he said at least 10 of the 200 people who had been held at the U.S. base on Cuba and were later returned to their home countries had rejoined the fight and been captured or encountered.

On Capitol Hill, Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, displayed plates of meals served to detainees at Guantanamo, and insisted that inmates were enjoying the best conditions of their lives.

“The point is the inmates in Guantanamo have never eaten better, they’ve never been treated better, and they’ve never been more comfortable in their lives than in this situation,” Hunter of California said at a news conference.