In his first weeks as defense secretary, Robert M. Gates repeatedly argued that the detention facility at GuantÃ¡namo Bay, Cuba, had become so tainted abroad that legal proceedings at GuantÃ¡namo would be viewed as illegitimate, according to senior administration officials. He told President Bush and others that it should be shut down as quickly as possible.
Mr. Gates’s appeal was an effort to turn Mr. Bush’s publicly stated desire to close GuantÃ¡namo into a specific plan for action, the officials said. In particular, Mr. Gates urged that trials of terrorism suspects be moved to the United States, both to make them more credible and because GuantÃ¡namo’s continued existence hampered the broader war effort, administration officials said.
Mr. Gates’s arguments were rejected after Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales and some other government lawyers expressed strong objections to moving detainees to the United States, a stance that was backed by the office of Vice President Dick Cheney, administration officials said.
As Mr. Gates was making his case, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice joined him in urging that the detention facility be shut down, administration officials said. But the high-level discussions about closing GuantÃ¡namo came to a halt after Mr. Bush rejected the approach, although officials at the National Security Council, the Pentagon and the State Department continue to analyze options for the detention of terrorism suspects.
The base at GuantÃ¡namo holds about 385 prisoners, among them 14 senior leaders of Al Qaeda, including Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who were transferred to it last year from secret prisons run by the Central Intelligence Agency. Under the Pentagon’s current plans, some prisoners, including Mr. Mohammed, will face war crimes charges under military trials that could begin later this year.
“The policy remains unchanged,” said Gordon D. Johndroe, a spokesman for the National Security Council.
Even so, one senior administration official who favors the closing of the facility said the battle might be renewed.
“Let’s see what happens to Gonzales,” that official said, referring to speculation that Mr. Gonzales will be forced to step down, or at least is significantly weakened, because of the political uproar over the dismissal of United States attorneys. “I suspect this one isn’t over yet.”
Details of the internal discussions on GuantÃ¡namo were described by senior officials from three departments or agencies of the executive branch, including officials who support moving rapidly to close GuantÃ¡namo and those who do not. One official made it clear that he was willing to discuss the internal deliberations in part because of Mr. Gonzales’s current political weakness. The senior officials discussed the issue on ground rules of anonymity because it entailed confidential conversations.
The officials said Mr. Gates and Ms. Rice expressed their concerns about GuantÃ¡namo in conversations with Mr. Bush and others, including Mr. Gonzales, beginning in January and onward. One widely discussed alternative would move the prisoners to military brigs in the United States, where they would remain in the custody of the Pentagon and would be subject to trial under military proceedings. There is widespread agreement, however, that moving any detainees or legal proceedings to American territory could bring significant complications.
Some administration lawyers are deeply reluctant to move terrorism suspects to American soil because it could increase their constitutional and statutory rights – and invite an explosion of civil litigation. GuantÃ¡namo was chosen because it was an American military facility but not on American soil.
Placing the detainees in military brigs on United States territory might fend off some of those challenges. The solution may eventually require a new act of Congress establishing legal standing for the detainees and new rules for their trial and incarceration if brought to the United States.
Mr. Gates’s criticism of GuantÃ¡namo marks a sharply different approach than the one taken by his predecessor, Donald H. Rumsfeld. It also demonstrated a new dynamic in the administration, in which Mr. Gates was teaming up with Ms. Rice, who often was at loggerheads with Mr. Rumsfeld. The State Department has long been concerned about the adverse foreign-policy impact of housing prisoners at GuantÃ¡namo.
In the end, Mr. Gates did succeed in killing plans to build a $100 million courthouse and detention complex at GuantÃ¡namo, after he argued that the large and expensive project would leave the impression of a long-lasting American detainee operation there and that the money could be more effectively spent elsewhere by the Pentagon. Mr. Gates approved a far more modest facility at one-tenth of the cost.
The setback in his effort to close GuantÃ¡namo was described by senior Pentagon officials as Mr. Gates’s only significant failure during an effort in his first three months in office to shift course from policies pursued by Mr. Rumsfeld. The outcome suggests that Mr. Bush, Mr. Cheney and Mr. Gonzales remain committed to a detention plan that has become one of the most controversial elements of the administration’s counterterrorism program.
Mr. Cheney’s spokeswoman, Lee Anne McBride, said via e-mail that “we don’t discuss internal deliberations.”
Mr. Bush has repeatedly said he ultimately wants to shutter the detention operations at GuantÃ¡namo. But he has also said it is not possible to do so any time soon.
State Department and Pentagon officials have said that even close allies are uncomfortable with American policies toward GuantÃ¡namo, making it more difficult in some cases to coordinate efforts in counterterrorism, intelligence and law enforcement.
More than 390 detainees have been transferred abroad from the GuantÃ¡namo facility since it was opened amid global controversy in 2002. Last year, 111 detainees were transferred out, and 12 more have been this year. About 20 of those repatriated to home countries have been picked up again in sweeps of terrorism suspects or have been killed or captured in battle, Pentagon officials say.
Many countries do not want to take back the detainees held at GuantÃ¡namo. Some home nations will not guarantee that returning detainees would be assured humane treatment and fair trials, while others will not guarantee that detainees viewed by American officials as still dangerous would not be set free.
Mr. Gates’s challenge has sent a ripple through the White House, because it forced officials to confront the question of whether Mr. Bush was actually moving to fulfill his stated desire to close the detention facility. Officials who advocate shutting down GuantÃ¡namo, including some at the Pentagon and the State Department, said an underlying motivation of those who want to keep the center open is that closing it would be seen as a public admission of an incorrect policy – something the Bush administration is loath to do.
Neither Mr. Gates nor Ms. Rice have made public their comments to Mr. Bush. “Nobody is going to be insubordinate with the president,” said one senior administration official involved in the discussions. “You know the saying: ‘One war, one team.’ ”
But in a recent Pentagon news conference, Mr. Gates did speak about his concerns over GuantÃ¡namo in general terms.
“I think that GuantÃ¡namo has become symbolic, whether we like it or not, for many around the world,” Mr. Gates said at the time. “The problem is that we have a certain number of the detainees there who often by their own confessions are people who if released would come back to attack the United States. There are others that we would like to turn back to their home countries, but their home countries don’t want them.”
He said officials “are trying to address the problem of how do we reduce the numbers at GuantÃ¡namo and then what do you do with the relatively limited number that would be irresponsible to release.”
“And I would tell you that we’re wrestling with those questions right now,” he continued.
In an interview on Thursday, Gordon England, the deputy secretary of defense who is Mr. Gates’s point man on detention issues, suggested that the long-term answer to GuantÃ¡namo might be creating some new international legal structure or set of multilateral agreements to manage captured members of global terrorist organizations.
“I don’t know the alternative unless the international community, frankly, develops an alternative,” Mr. England said. “It is not a U.S. problem. It is an international problem to be dealt with.”
Mr. England said American government officials had “an extraordinarily high degree of confidence from the information available” that many GuantÃ¡namo detainees were “going to damage the country, so you just can’t let them go.”
“So,” he added, “this is difficult. I know it’s onerous. I know there are a lot of questions about it. We deal with it the best we can. But at the end of the day, we are not going to put the country or our citizens in jeopardy.”