GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba – On his first visit to the hot, dusty camp where 158 suspected terrorists are held in small, open-air cells, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said none would be granted prisoner of war status and all are receiving humane treatment.
Rumsfeld, joined by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Richard Myers, and four senators, strolled within several feet of the 8-foot-by-8-foot cells with see-through walls of chain-link fence.
None of the prisoners, clad in bright orange jump suits, appeared to respond to Rumsfeld's presence. In remarks to reporters later, he made a point of saying he was less interested in the prisoners than in thanking the U.S. troops who are guarding and caring for them.
``I came down to say thank you,'' Rumsfeld told a small group of military personnel.
The secretary ruled out any possibility of granting prisoner of war status to the captured fighters, whom he has described as among the most hard-core Al Qaeda terrorists and Taliban fighters. They were captured in Afghanistan and Pakistan and flown here aboard Air Force transport planes between Jan. 11 and Jan. 21 to be interrogated and possibly prosecuted.
``They are not POWs. They will not be determined to be POWs,'' Rumsfeld said.
The Bush administration considers the captured fighters to be ``unlawful combatants'' and ``detainees'' rather than prisoners of war, Rumsfeld said, because they don't represent a recognized government and their method of terror violates internationally accepted laws of warfare.
The distinction is significant because under the Geneva Conventions written after World War II, a POW has certain legal rights that would govern the U.S. military's interrogations of the detainees and require they be released when the hostilities in Afghanistan are over.
If there is any ambiguity about whether a captive should be considered a prisoner of war, the Geneva Conventions say a special three-person military tribunal should be convened to decide.
Rumsfeld said that is irrelevant at Guantanamo Bay.
``There is no ambiguity in this case,'' he said.
President Bush planned to preside at a National Security Council meeting Monday at which the issue of whether the Geneva Conventions should apply was on the agenda, defense officials said.
Vice President Dick Cheney agreed with Rumsfeld that the detainees aren't POWs.
``These are the worst of a very bad lot,'' Cheney said on Fox News Sunday. ``They are very dangerous. They are devoted to killing millions of Americans, innocent Americans, if they can, and they are perfectly prepared to die in the effort. And they need to be detained, treated very cautiously, so that our people are not at risk.''
Rumsfeld and Gen. Myers traveled to the detention facility, known as ``Camp X-ray,'' by plane, boat and bus. They were accompanied by four senators: Democrats Dianne Feinstein of California and Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, and Republicans Ted Stevens of Alaska and Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas.
Feinstein and the other senators told reporters after touring the camp that they agreed with the administration's handling of the prisoners and saw nothing to suggest mistreatment.
Inouye, in fact, said they are being treated ``in some ways better than we treat our people.''
Feinstein said she once worked at a California prison and has visited many others around the world. To those abroad who have suggested the Guantanamo Bay prisoners have been treated improperly she said, ``Take another look.''
Rumsfeld also met with representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross at the camp. He said they told him that any information from Red Cross interviews of prisoners would be released to the U.S. government only on condition that it not be made public.