Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Two Democratic senators just back from reviewing U.S. detention facilities and interrogations at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, said they saw no signs of abuse and said it would actually be worse to close the facility and transfer the detainees elsewhere.

“I strongly prefer the improved practices and conditions at Camp Delta to the outsourcing of interrogation to countries with a far less significant commitment to human rights,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, Oregon Democrat, who toured the U.S. facility along with Sen. Ben Nelson, Nebraska Democrat.

The two Democrats were joined on the trip by two Republicans, Sen. Jim Bunning of Kentucky and Sen. Michael D. Crapo of Idaho.

Their characterization contrasts with critics, including Democratic Party leaders, who have called for the camp to be closed as a bruise on America’s human rights record.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California called for a commission to document abuses at Guantanamo and worldwide, while the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate, Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, two weeks ago compared interrogation tactics at Guantanamo to those used during the Nazi and Soviet regimes.

“The United States, which each year issues a human rights report holding the world accountable for outrageous conduct, is engaged in the same outrageous conduct when it comes to these prisoners,” Mr. Durbin said at the time, citing an FBI agent’s e-mail detailing some of the tactics to which the agent objected.

But the four returning senators, in separate Republican and Democrat press conferences yesterday, said they saw no evidence of ongoing abuse.

“Everything we heard about operations there in the past, we’d have to say, was negative. What we saw firsthand was something different,” Mr. Nelson said.

Mr. Bunning said he observed six separate interrogations, and only one detainee was questioned while in restraints. Four of the six detainees spoke to their interrogators, and the other two refused to answer questions. The interrogators were usually women, and the translators were usually men, Mr. Bunning said.

Mr. Crapo said of the 70,000 people captured and detained globally in the war on terror, only 800 have been taken to Guantanamo. Many of those have been released or moved to other facilities, leaving 520 at Camp Delta.

He said there have been 400 visits by 1,000 reporters to the facility and that nearly 20 senators, a larger number of House members and 100 congressional staff members have visited the camp.

A delegation from the House of Representatives made a similar trip during the weekend, and one member reported similar findings.

“The detainees’ meal was as good as any I had in my 31 years of Army Guard service, and I can see why the prisoners this year gained five pounds over last year,” said Rep. Joe Wilson, South Carolina Republican.

Asked how they knew they were seeing real operations rather than a staged display, both Republican and Democratic senators said that they had access to everything and that they trusted the troops they talked with from their own states.

The Democrats did agree with Mrs. Pelosi’s call for better-defined rules about who should be detained at Guantanamo.

“You have this state of legal limbo where it’s not clear what the rules are,” Mr. Wyden said. “The fact is it’s a process that is not taking place in accord with any federal statute considered or debated by Congress.”

But the two Republicans maintained the problem is not in the way the United States defines the detainees, saying they are treated as well as or better than the Geneva Conventions would require for prisoners of war.

Mr. Crapo said the U.S. definition combines directives from the president and the secretary of defense and Supreme Court rulings about the legal options available to detainees.

He said it is now up to the international community to decide on standards of treatment for detainees who do not qualify for prisoner-of-war status and fall outside of regular law-enforcement options.

“I don’t think any such agreement would ultimately result in a higher standard; it might result in an agreed standard,” Mr. Crapo said.

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