WASHINGTON - Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld insisted yesterday that detainees from Afghanistan were being treated humanely at a U.S. base in Cuba, and rejected charges of ill treatment as exaggeration and "breathless" commentary.
"The treatment of the detainees in Guantanamo Bay is proper, it's humane, it's appropriate and it is fully consistent with international conventions," Rumsfeld said during an hourlong Pentagon briefing dominated by questions about the detention of the 158 prisoners at Camp X-Ray. Nearly all were fighters for al-Qaida and the Taliban.
Rumsfeld defended the handling of the prisoners amid reports that John Walker Lindh, the 20-year- old American who fought for the Taliban in Afghanistan, was being brought back to the United States and would arrive in the Washington area today.
Unlike the foreign fighters, Rumsfeld said, Walker is in the custody of the Justice Department and will be taken to Northern Virginia, where he is to be tried in federal court in Alexandria. He has been charged with conspiring to kill Americans while fighting alongside the Taliban and al-Qaida in Afghanistan,
The Associated Press reported that Walker had been taken from the ship on which he was being held to a U.S. base in Kandahar, Afghanistan, where he was transferred to a U.S. military plane bound for the United States.
The military has drawn a barrage of criticism in recent days because of its refusal to classify the detainees as prisoners of war, which would grant them internationally recognized rights under the Geneva Conventions.
Human rights advocates and some members of the British Parliament also have complained about detainees being brought to Guantanamo Bay in shackles and blacked-out goggles, then kept in small chain-link cells that former Attorney General Ramsey Clark referred to yesterday as "kennels."
Rumsfeld said accounts of the treatment of prisoners had been exaggerated to begin with, repeated by others, "and then some breathless commentator repeats it again."
He said heavy-duty restraints were necessary while the prisoners, whom he described as dangerous terrorists, were being transported. He cited a revolt among prisoners aboard a bus in Pakistan that led to the deaths of several Pakistani soldiers guarding them. At least one of the Guantanamo Bay prisoners threatened to kill Americans and another bit a guard, he said.
The goggles, shackles and handcuffs are removed once the men are taken to their cells, Rumsfeld said.
As for how the prisoners are confined, Rumsfeld said, "To be in an eight-by-eight cell in beautiful, sunny Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, is not inhumane treatment."
The defense secretary aimed sarcasm especially at the British lawmakers, saying, "It's amazing the insight that parliamentarians can gain from 5,000 miles away."
But he acknowledged that military officials had erred in releasing a photograph showing some of the prisoners bent over in a corridor, which he said gave the misleading impression that they were being forced to kneel.
The photograph drew a warning from the International Committee of the Red Cross, which said it violated Geneva Conventions rules barring captors from exposing prisoners to public curiosity. Rumsfeld said the prisoners in the picture were required to kneel only while paraphernalia used during their transport, such as earpieces to block airplane noise, was removed before they were placed in their cells.
The Pentagon calls the detainees "unlawful combatants" rather than prisoners of war. Rumsfeld said a POW designation would suggest that al-Qaida, to which many of the detainees belong, had the status of a country.
But the designation might ultimately affect how the detainees are treated. As POWs, they could not be tried for engaging in hostilities - only for violating the rules of war. And they would have to be tried either in civil courts or in courts-martial, as would a U.S. serviceman, not in a military tribunal of the type President Bush has authorized.
The detainees, as POWs, also would not be required to give any information to interrogators other than their name, military rank and identification such as a serial number.
Rumsfeld said interrogation of the prisoners will help the government learn more about al-Qaida and to prevent further attacks on the United States. He said the detainees ultimately could be tried in civil courts, in the standard military justice system or in the military tribunals allowed under the president's executive order. Some of the prisoners might be returned to their countries of origin, Rumsfeld said.
The Associated Press reported that in addition to the al-Qaida and Taliban detainees, the United States recently flew to Guantanamo six Algerians, arrested in Bosnia, who it believes have intelligence related to the terrorist network but were not involved in the Afghanistan fighting.