The United States is helping build a prison in Afghanistan to take some prisoners now at Guantanamo Bay, but the White House said yesterday it is not meant as an alternative to the detainee facility in Cuba.
“America does not have any intention of being the world’s jailer,” White House deputy press secretary Dana Perino told reporters. She noted that the United States announced plans to release about 80 of roughly 375 detainees at Guantanamo, and hopes to transfer several dozen Afghans back to Afghanistan in the near future.
The Pentagon announced yesterday that a new detainee had been transferred to the center, but added it was doing its best to reduce the population there, now at the lowest number in its five-year history.
Mrs. Perino said President Bush has directed Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to work with her counterparts around the world to try to repatriate detainees to their home countries, make sure they are held safely and treated humanely and that they are not allowed to perpetrate acts of terrorism.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said yesterday that Miss Rice continues to work to achieve that goal while she and others in the administration struggle with how to address security concerns that could result from closing Guantanamo.
“The president has said he would like nothing better than at some point to shut down Guantanamo Bay, but there are a number of steps that need to be taken between here and that stated objective and they are tough issues,” Mr. McCormack said. “There are people down at Guantanamo Bay who are very, very dangerous and you can’t just let them walk free.”
Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates supports closing the facility.
“I think that’s the goal of everybody in the administration and probably most Americans — that we would rather not have to have a place like Guantanamo,” he said. “But the fact remains that there are dangerous people out there that are being picked up on the battlefield that have vowed to return to the fight if released, and individuals that have committed war crimes and should be held accountable for their actions.”
The Pentagon announced the transfer of Haroon al-Afghani to the center. Captured in the Afghan province of Nangarhar, he is suspected of serving as a courier for al Qaeda leadership and commanding multiple terrorist cells of the Hezb-e-Islami militant faction.
The Guantanamo Bay prison, set up in 2002 to house terrorism suspects captured in military operations, mostly in Afghanistan, has been a flash point for criticism of the Bush administration at home and abroad.
Human rights advocates and foreign leaders have repeatedly called for its shutdown, and the prison is regarded by critics as proof of a U.S. double standard on fundamental freedoms in the war on terrorism.