White House says captives at Cuba base aren't POWs

Suspected terrorists to be held indefinitely, despite allies' criticisms

January 25, 2002|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON - Defying its closest allies, the Bush administration is determined to keep hundreds of suspected terrorists in detention indefinitely in Guantanamo, saying it's needed to assist a global investigation trying to prevent more terrorist attacks.

In one of the administration's strongest comments, White House counsel Alberto Gonzales said none of the 158 detainees in Guantanamo would qualify for prisoner-of-war status, despite the urging of Germany, the Netherlands, the European Union and human rights groups.

"We have determined that they are not POWs, and there is no doubt about their status," said Gonzales. "They are not going to become POWs."

The POW question is crucial to how the administration plans to bring to justice what officials call "the worst of the worst" - members of the al-Qaida terrorist network and Taliban fighters from Afghanistan.

"The Pentagon has never faced anything like this before, at least on this scale," said John Hutson, a retired rear admiral and former judge advocate general in the Navy.

"This is a very difficult situation because we have all these prisoners - whatever you call them - and we don't have the legal vehicle in place to deal with them," said Hutson, dean of the Franklin Pierce Law Center in Concord, N.H.

The detainees could total 2,000 if a permanent jail facility is built, according to a spokesman for the U.S. Southern Command, which oversees forces in the Caribbean and Latin America.

The administration insists the detainees are "unlawful combatants" and potential war criminals who don't deserve the legal protections of POWs under the Geneva Conventions, such as repatriation when hostilities end, or trial by the rules of courts-martial with counsel of their choice.

Legally, they are in limbo. That's just fine with U.S. officials whose overriding priority is to interrogate the captives, seeking information on al-Qaida, how it works and plans for future attacks.

"I'm sure the lawyers will figure out at what point to bring charges to people," said Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld at a briefing Tuesday. "For the moment, I'm just pleased they're detained and off the streets and not killing people."

Interrogation of detainees in Afghanistan has foiled plans for attacks against Americans in Yemen and Singapore, U.S. officials said this week.

The interrogation in Guantanamo did not begin until Wednesday, and its "chief short-term goal is to develop information to help forestall terrorist acts," said Steve Lucas, a spokesman for the U.S. Southern Command.

The Pentagon is in no hurry to charge the detainees or begin the process of bringing them before military tribunals. Top Pentagon lawyer William Haynes and his staff have been working for more than two months on rules for those tribunals, a judicial system not used since World War II.

"They're buying time, because once you launch the tribunals, you start a timeline, and that adds to the pressure to decide what to do with everybody," said Scott Silliman, who was a senior attorney in the Air Force for 25 years.

One administration official said there is "very little we know" about some of the Guantanamo detainees, and it will take time to develop a case against them.

Hutson said there's an added benefit to keeping prisoners in legal limbo without lawyers.

"After a while, some may rat on others," he said. "We don't know how many are true believers or how many are mercenaries, and some may start talking."

Some experts in international law caution that U.S. officials have to clarify the detainees' status eventually, especially if international pressure builds.

"We're setting an example for the world, and we simply do not have the authority to indefinitely detain individuals without some charge filed against them," said David Scheffer, a former roving U.S. ambassador who helped set up war crimes tribunals.

"The dilemma is, we may not have enough evidence to prosecute some of them, but we don't want to liberate them either," he added.

Scheffer and other legal experts said the administration is brushing aside one provision of the Geneva Conventions, that military officers in a "competent tribunal" must sort out POWs from non-POWs.

Silliman, Scheffer and Human Rights Watch say some Taliban fighters, as members of a defeated government force, could qualify for POW status.

The Pentagon has given no breakdown on the number of Taliban or al-Qaida detainees, or their nationalities. Some of the non-Afghan prisoners might be returned home.

Britain's foreign secretary, Jack Straw, said yesterday he would prefer to have the three British citizens held in Guantanamo returned to face justice at home.

But some of the "hardest of hard-core" terrorists aren't going anywhere, many predict. And Guantanamo, isolated and secure, might be the future home for a prison, especially as the war on terrorism picks up suspects around the world.

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