GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba – Touring Camp X-Ray where Al Qaeda and Taliban prisoners are being interrogated under U.S. custody, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld on Sunday ruled out any possibility of granting prisoner of war status to the suspected terrorists held in the makeshift prison.
"They are not POWs. They will not be determined to be POWs," Rumsfeld told reporters accompanying him on his first visit to the detention facility on a U.S. Naval Base.
The Bush administration considers the captured fighters to be "unlawful combatants" and "detainees" because their method of terror violates internationally accepted laws and specifically targets civilians.
The distinction is significant because under the Geneva Convention, written after World War II, a POW has certain legal rights that would govern the U.S. military's interrogations of the detainees and would require that 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 Convention says 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.
Vice President Dick Cheney said Sunday that officials agree the detainees aren't prisoners of war. But administration lawyers are debating whether the Geneva Convention, which has provisions that deal with unlawful combatants, applies in this case.
"These are the worst of a very bad lot," Cheney told 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."
The detainee issue is likely to come up Monday at the regularly scheduled National Security Council meeting, which President Bush attends, a senior administration official said.
Rumsfeld and Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, traveled to the Camp X-Ray detention facility by plane, boat and bus, 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.
They came to get a firsthand look at the facilities and procedures used in handling the 158 prisoners being detained in 8-by-8 foot, open air cells.
Feinstein and the other senators told reporters after touring the camp that they agreed with the Bush 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."
As members of a Navy construction battalion pounded away, building new holding cells in the distance, Rumsfeld walked through an area of the camp and got to see many of the detainees in their cells.
Reporters who accompanied Rumsfeld from Washington were kept about 100 yards away from the camp, close enough to see prisoners — some wearing white towels on their heads — moving about in their cells.
Rumsfeld, dressed in olive green dress slacks and blue open-neck dress shirt, told reporters that as he walked by a row of cells he could hear some of the captured fighters speaking to each other. Members of his party said none were seen gesturing toward him or giving any indication they recognized him.
The defense secretary got a look at five small, newly erected buildings on the perimeter of the camp that soon will be used for prisoner interrogations. The questioning so far has been done in a tent adjacent to the cells.
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 the government not make it public.
Last week, Rumsfeld halted the transfer of prisoners from Afghanistan, citing a shortage of cells. On Sunday, he said he was considering when to begin building more permanent facilities.
Rumsfeld said the purpose of the trip was not to investigate the treatment of the captured Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters, although some U.S. allies have raised questions about it.
Last week, the Defense Department released a photograph of some of the prisoners in manacles, kneeling and wearing goggles and ear muffs. That triggered protests in Europe and elsewhere about the conditions at Guantanamo Bay.
Rumsfeld said he came mainly to thank the U.S. troops guarding the prisoners and to meet with their commanders.
"I have absolutely full confidence in the way the detainees are being handled and treated," Rumsfeld said. "It is a tough job," he added, noting that Al Qaeda has vowed to kill Americans anywhere and wherever possible. The United States blames Al Qaeda and its leader Usama bin Laden for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Military officials said Saturday that the distinctions between the leaders and followers among the prisoners at Camp X-Ray are beginning to emerge, giving U.S. interrogators a peek at the structure of the machinery of terror.
"These are among the most dangerous, best trained, vicious killers on the face of the earth," Rumsfeld said.
Rumsfeld said there has been a lot of misinformation and confusion about the handling of the prisoners and distortion of the conditions under which they are living here.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.