Detainees are being treated fairly, officials maintain

Pentagon and Justice Department officials defended U.S. detention practices at the military prison camp in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, but conceded that legislation may help clear up confusion on whether all prisoners are being properly held as enemy combatants.

Growing reports of prisoner abuse at Guantanamo prompted Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) to hold what he called a long-overdue hearing yesterday and challenge Congress to take a role in developing policies for detaining and trying terrorism suspects.

Defense and Justice Department officials maintained that careful steps are being taken to protect the rights of the prisoners as their cases are processed. Because of the “highly unusual nature of the global war on terrorism,” and the fact that there is no foreseeable end in sight, the Pentagon took “unprecedented and historic action to establish a process to permit enemy combatants to be heard while the conflict is ongoing,” said Rear Adm. James McGarrah, who monitors the detention of enemy combatants for the Navy.

He said the military developed an administrative review board to assess annually whether each detainee at Guantanamo continues to pose a threat or can be released. The Combatant Status Review Tribunal assesses formally whether detainees were properly held as an enemy combatant and permit them to contest their designation as such.

According to McGarrah, 558 prisoners were given hearings at Guantanamo, out of which the tribunal determined that 520 were properly classified as enemy combatants. Of the remaining 38, 23 have been released and the Defense and State departments are working to release the remaining 15. The United States holds prisoners from some 40 countries at Guantanamo.

Only four of the detainees have so far been charged, while many have been held for approximately three years. Even though the detainees were given formal hearings in front of a review panel, that panel is not part of the nation’s criminal-justice system and the prisoners were not being held for criminal-justice purposes, Michael Wiggins, deputy associate attorney general, told the panel.

The committee’s ranking member, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), called the facility at Gitmo, as the base is nicknamed, “an international embarrassment to our nation” and a “festering threat to our security.” He criticized the Bush administration’s policy on detainees, saying the administration does not have “a coherent theory of how to proceed.”

Since the United States may face terrorism for “as long as you and I live,” Leahy said, he asked Brig. Gen. Thomas Hemingway, from the Pentagon’s office of military commissions, whether the United States can hold prisoners for such a long time without charges. Hemingway’s answer was that the military can hold them for “as long as the conflict endures.”

Leahy criticized the administration on failing to treat detainees humanely. “Even with the administration’s continued stonewalling against any independent investigation into the mistreatment of detainees, we continue to learn of more abuses on a daily basis,” Leahy said in his opening statements.

Meanwhile, Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.) called renewed attention to setting up an independent commission, similar to the Sept. 11 commission, to tell Congress what it should do about Guantanamo. Biden introduced that concept as part of the Targeting Terrorists More Effectively Act in January.

Specter said Congress has its work cut out for it as it analyzes the procedures used with the prisoners at Guantanamo who do not fall within the scope of the U.S. judicial system.

Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) said that closing Guantanamo Bay makes sense, but it should not be closed without an investigation.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld made it clear Tuesday that the United States will need Guantanamo for years to come because there is no alternative location to hold and interrogate the terrorism suspects held there.

He added that the military does not want to be in a position of holding prisoners any longer than necessary.