Gitmo stays open till detainees' fate is resolved, Bush says

By Seattle Times news services

WASHINGTON — President Bush on Wednesday acknowledged the Guantánamo Bay detention center is hurting American credibility, but he repeated his belief the camp should stay open until the detainees have been returned home or tried in military courts.

At a Rose Garden news conference on his return from a surprise visit to Iraq, Bush again said he'd "like to close Guantánamo," the remote holding center at the U.S. Navy base in southeast Cuba that came under increased scrutiny over the weekend after three detainees committed suicide.

But he said the United States is "holding some people there who are darn dangerous, and we'd better have a plan to deal with them in our courts."

The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule in June whether Bush overstepped his authority in ordering the military tribunals — the first by the United States since the World War II era.

Bush said the administration is sending some detainees back to their home countries, noting that the State Department "is encouraging countries to take the folks back."

But he acknowledged complaints about indefinite detentions at the center.

"No question Guantánamo sends a signal to some of our friends, provides an excuse, for example, to say that the United States is not upholding the values they're trying to encourage other countries to adhere to," Bush said. "And my answer to them is, we are a nation of laws and rule of law. These detainees got picked up off the battlefield and they're very dangerous. And so we'll have that balance between customary justice, the typical system, and one that will be done in the military courts. ...

"Eventually, these people will have trials and they will have counsel. And they will be represented in a court of law, those who are not sent back to their mother countries."

Also Wednesday, a military defense lawyer asked the Pentagon to move the trial for an alleged bodyguard of Osama bin Laden to the U.S., saying difficult access for witnesses and the media makes it impossible to hold it fairly at Guantánamo Bay.

Army Maj. Tom Fleener suggested the trial for Ali Hamza Ahmad Sulayman al-Bahlul could safely be held at a Navy base in the United States.

"They are making it difficult on purpose for the media to attend these trials and it's not right," said Fleener, who filed a change-of-venue motion with the Office of Military Commissions.

The announcement came as the Pentagon expelled two reporters from Guantánamo Bay who were trying to cover an investigation into the three suicides.

A Pentagon spokesman, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Jeffrey Gordon, said the reporters from the Miami Herald and the Los Angeles Times were ordered to leave because they were authorized only to cover military commission hearings, which were canceled because of the suicides last weekend. A third reporter from The Charlotte Observer, who was there to write a profile of a base official, cut his visit short after his access was restricted, Gordon said.

Al-Bahlul, who has refused to cooperate with Fleener in his defense, is one of 10 Guantánamo Bay detainees charged with crimes and facing military tribunals. The U.S. holds about 460 men at the prison on suspicion of links to al-Qaida and the Taliban.

There have been 41 reported suicide attempts since the prison opened in January 2002. Periodic hunger strikes have taken place. One last month involved 75 detainees.