Washington — The U.S. is helping expand a prison in Afghanistan to take some detainees from Guantanamo Bay, while administration officials argue about whether to bring the most dangerous to the U.S. when the Cuban facility shuts down.
President Bush has made closing the prison in Cuba a priority, though the Afghan site is not meant to be a substitute, the White House said Friday.
"Everybody is working toward the goal to meet what the president has asked them to do, which is to do it as soon as possible," deputy press secretary Dana Perino told reporters.
She said Bush's top aides are in active discussions about closing Guantanamo. Senior officials, meanwhile, have told The Associated Press a consensus is building on how to do it, including sending some high-value suspects to military facilities in the U.S. where they could be prosecuted.
Officials say the administration is split, with Vice President Dick Cheney's office and the Justice Department vehemently opposed to any proposal that would bring detainees to U.S. soil, where they would be afforded more legal rights and might pose a threat.
Pressure to close Guantanamo has been mounting in recent months, with the administration suffering a series of legal setbacks and some in Congress threatening to mandate a shutdown.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, among others, are in favor of the proposal to bring some detainees to the U.S., provided proper safeguards are in place, officials say. And Perino made clear that Bush is determined to see Guantanamo Bay shut down.
"America does not have any intention of being the world's jailer," she said, noting that the United States has announced plans to release about 80 of the some 375 detainees remaining in Guantanamo and hopes to transfer several dozen Afghans back to Afghanistan in the near future.
Washington is helping the Afghan government build a high-security wing at Pul-e-Charki prison complex just outside Kabul. The wing has 330 cells and can hold up to 660 people, including 65 Afghans held at Guantanamo Bay, according to Afghan officials.
But Gen. Mohammad Zahir Azimi, the chief spokesman for Afghanistan's Defense Ministry, said none of those held at Guantanamo had been transferred to Afghanistan so far despite statements by U.S. officials that they would be sent back by the end of April 2007.
The Guantanamo Bay prison, set up in 2002 to house terror 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 U.S. double standards on fundamental freedoms in the war on terrorism.
Some of the detainees have come from countries that are U.S. allies, including Britain, Saudi Arabia and Australia. Each of those governments raised complaints about the conditions or duration of detentions, or about the possibility that detainees might face death sentences.
The Bush administration has transferred 405 detainees out of Guantanamo to more than two dozen countries. Most were later released by their home countries. Of the 375 who remain, the U.S. military says it wants to prosecute 60 to 80 and has cleared for transfer another 80.
The military says the rest, about 200, are either too dangerous to release or still have intelligence value.