- The Washington Times - Friday, February 13, 2004

A government panel is being set up to conduct annual reviews of terror suspects held at Guantanamo Bay to determine whether they shall be tried by military commissions, transferred to their home countries for further detention or trial, or simply released.

Defending the ongoing and indefinite detention of individuals in the U.S.-led war on terror, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld yesterday said the United States has no desire to hold the suspects any longer than is “absolutely necessary.”

Some 660 individuals, termed “enemy combatants” by the Bush administration, are being held at a prison built at the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, since the September 11 attacks.

None of the prisoners, the vast majority of whom were arrested in Afghanistan, has been officially charged with any offense, nor do they have access to lawyers.

So far, 87 have been transferred for release, although the details of the panel that will review the remaining prisoners are still being worked out. For example, it was not clear yesterday whether prisoners will be appointed defense lawyers during the review process.

Mr. Rumsfeld said that for prisoners who “continue to be a threat but are not guilty of war crimes, the U.S. government would prefer to transfer them to their native countries for detention or for prosecution.”

In an apparent response to criticism from human rights groups and foreign governments about the circumstances under which the prisoners are held, Mr. Rumsfeld said he recognizes “that in our society the idea of detaining people without lawyers … without trials seems unusual.”

But, he said, the present policy toward the prisoners is necessary in terms of “the law of war, which has as its purpose first to keep the enemy off the battlefield so that they can’t kill more innocent people.”

Acknowledging that in past conflicts, prisoners traditionally have been released when a particular war ends, Mr. Rumsfeld said that “no one could possibly claim that the conflict has ended.”

He stressed that those held at Guantanamo are “not common criminals, they are enemy combatants and terrorists who are being detained for acts of war, and that is why different rules have to apply.”

Mr. Rumsfeld’s remarks were dismissed by some human rights advocates, who argue that enemy combatants have been denied basic rights of international law.

“The recognition that imprisoning people for years without trial will seem ‘unusual’ to some is welcome,” said Elisa Massimino, director of the Washington office for the Lawyers Committee on Human Rights. “But the bottom line is that, while the administration continues to pretend it is complying with the laws of war, it is not.”

In a departure from the Pentagon’s policy of secrecy regarding ongoing interrogations at Guantanamo, Mr. Rumsfeld detailed key intelligence gleaned from the terror suspects.

Prisoners “have revealed al Qaeda leadership structures, operatives, funding mechanisms, communication methods, training and selection programs, travel patterns, support infrastructures and plans for attacking the United States and other friendly countries,” he said. “They have provided information on al Qaeda front companies and on bank accounts, on surface-to-air missiles, improvised explosive devices and tactics that are used by terrorist elements.”

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