By MARIA NEWMAN
The New York Times
June 24, 2004
The secretary of the Navy said today that annual reviews of detainees at the Guantánamo Bay military prison in Cuba would begin within a matter of weeks, a process to determine whether they should be released or continue to be held as a "threat to America."
The secretary, Gordon R. England, said in a Pentagon news briefing that review boards consisting of three military officers would consider information about each detainee — including hearsay, rumors and intelligence reports — and then make recommendations to him about the fate of each of the 595 detainees at Guantánamo. Many are suspected of terror activities, and some have been held almost two years.
"I expect that out of all the cases, there's some we can act on quickly, hopefully in a matter of a couple of weeks," Mr. England said.
The new review boards will not assign guilt or innocence, the secretary said, but will only determine whether a prisoner should be released or held for further inquiry. Prisoners will be represented by military officials, but not lawyers, and the process will be closed to the public.
Nonetheless, he asserted, "our approach is to make this process very fair, clear, precise and transparent."
In spite of complaints from human rights activists and the governments of some of the detainees' home countries, investigators have moved to bring military prosecutions against only a dozen or so, military officials recently said.
The secretary's briefing came a day after the White House made public a stack of internal documents on the treatment of war prisoners to back up President Bush's declaration that torture was "not part of our soul."
The Bush administration has found itself in a defensive posture over disclosures of mistreatment of captives at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, which have also called into question methods used to pressure detainees to talk during interrogations at Guantánamo Bay and other places.
Earlier today, leading Democrats in the House said they were introducing legislation to try to force the Bush administration to release more documents related to the handling and treatment of detainees in Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay and elsewhere. They also want to create a special select committee to expand the investigation into reports of prisoner abuses by the military.
Representative Jane Harman, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said that the nine Democrats on the panel were supporting an amendment to the intelligence authorization bill that would withhold funds until more documents on the prisoner abuse investigation were released.
"It is intended to underscore the seriousness of the prisoner abuse issue and the committee's determination to get the straight story," Ms. Harman said.
She said that she had visited Guantánamo Bay three times and traveled to Baghdad twice with other members of the Intelligence Committee to discuss security issues with high-ranking officials who oversaw the prisoner interrogations.
"Nobody in those meetings in either place ever disclosed the issues around prisoner abuse, even though the purpose of our mission was to understand interrogation policies," she said at a Capitol Hill news conference with other Democratic leaders today. "This is very serious. We don't have the documents. We don't have candid testimony."
Representative Henry A. Waxman, Democrat of California, said legislation would be introduced to create a bipartisan select committee to investigate the prisoner abuse questions.
He said the committee had written to President Bush in the past to request documents on prisoner abuse, and had set a deadline of June 17. "That date came and went, and the president failed to respond to our request," Mr. Waxman said. "Meanwhile, the House has failed to conduct any oversight investigations about the Abu Ghraib prison incident or the problems in Guantanamo or Afghanistan."
"I think we're looking at a classic case of abuse of power," Mr. Waxman added.
At the Defense Department briefing, Secretary England was asked if today's announcement was timed to quell criticism of the administration's approach on prison policy.
Mr. England said the new review system, which military officers had referred to in February as a "quasi-parole board," had been in the planning stages for some time. "It just happens it's finally coming to fruition now," he asserted.
Mr. England said that he had met with representatives of several human rights organizations and the Red Cross earlier today to solicit their comments and suggestions on the new review process before it was put in place.
"It's important that we do it right for the American people and for the detainees," Mr. Gordon said.
"This is an administrative review process to determine if people should continue to be detained or released or transferred with conditions," he continued. "This is to determine the state of that person in terms of are they a continuing threat to America or, frankly, do they have intelligence value to America, because if they do, we obviously don't want to release them right away."