GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba – U.S. interrogators quizzed prisoners of the Afghan war about terrorist training while sailors hastily constructed more cells at the near-capacity detention camp to allow flights carrying more detainees to resume.
Officials on Wednesday postponed bringing other detainees from Afghanistan until investigators finish questioning the camp's current 158 inmates. Officials want to determine whether they should remain imprisoned on this remote U.S. outpost on Cuba's eastern tip, should be sent to another country, or be returned to their homelands. They are nationals of at least 10 countries.
The detainees were not allowed lawyers as officers from several U.S. civilian and military agencies questioned them.
``We have a large enough population to begin interviews,'' Brig. Gen. Mike Lehnert, the Marine in charge of the detention camp at the U.S. Naval base on Cuba's eastern tip, told reporters Wednesday.
In Washington, President Bush brushed aside an international outcry over treatment of the detainees, telling legislators they ``should be proud'' of how detainees were treated.
But some legislators plan a one-day visit Friday to see for themselves, according to the aides of Florida Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Rep. Steve Buyer of Indiana, both Republicans who are part of the delegation.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer cast the detainees as suicidal fanatics who would ``engage in murder once again'' if freed, and said the president was concerned they might stage an uprising against their U.S. captors.
In Florida, a Navy admiral on Wednesday defended the military's treatment of the prisoners, saying it's better than what they would get at home.
Rear Admiral Jan C. Guadio, commander of the Navy's southeast region, which includes Cuba, said the prisoners are gaining weight and getting good medical care.
All the prisoners are suspected terrorists who fought for al-Qaida or the ousted Afghan Taliban regime that sheltered that network blamed for the suicide airplane attacks on New York's World Trade Center and the Pentagon in suburban Washington.
Interrogations are taking place in a tent in Camp X-ray, the hastily built detention center fortified by three rows of fences topped by watchtowers and patrolled by attack dogs.
Not bringing in more prisoners would allow the military to ``remove detainees who have been interviewed from the general population,'' Lehnert told reporters. ``It wouldn't do to have them comparing notes.''
As he spoke, sailors were busy unraveling chain-link fence that forms the walls of the open-air cells on a concrete base and topped by corrugated iron.
About 230 detainees remain at a U.S. base at Kandahar airport, in southern Afghanistan.
When the last detainees arrived from Afghanistan, on Tuesday, all but two of the temporary cells were occupied. Since then, sailors have erected another 60 cells, for a total of 220, and more go up each day.
Officials said they were reluctant to double up inmates in the cells, for security reasons.
Sailors also were busy hammering away Wednesday at three wooden buildings that will serve as more permanent interrogation centers.
A Muslim cleric, one of 12 in the U.S. military, arrived late Wednesday. Among other things, camp officials want to discuss whether detainees should be allowed to grow back the long hair and beards that devout Muslim men wear and that were shaved off in detention.
On Wednesday, 400 copies of the Quran, the sacred text of Islam, with passages in Arabic and English, were delivered to prisoners.
Navy Lt. Abuhena Saif-ul-Islam, who in 1999 became the Marines' first Muslim chaplain, arrived in Cuba from Camp Pendleton, Calif. He was expected to meet with prisoners Thursday and would be responsible for their spiritual guidance and giving cultural orientation to the soldiers guarding them.
Because Guantanamo officials won't identify inmates by nationality, they have refused to say whether a flight on Monday carried six Algerian terrorist suspects arrested by Bosnian authorities and turned over to the United States, as U.S. military in Kandahar had reported.
However, Britain, Sweden, Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Australia have said they have citizens among detainees in Guantanamo.
Several European governments and international human rights organizations complained about treatment of prisoners after newspapers published photographs of newly arrived detainees with their eyes blinded by blacked-out goggles, their hearing impaired by ear muffs and their noses covered by surgical masks. U.S. military say the precautions are necessary during the daylong flight from Kandahar.
In London, a delegation of British Muslims told a U.S. diplomat Wednesday that the United States had humiliated and degraded the prisoners.