WASHINGTON – In a strongly worded letter, Secretary of State Colin Powell has urged Pentagon officials to move faster in determining which prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay (search) can be released, defense officials said Saturday.
Powell's April 14 letter to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld (search) questioned the continued detention of some 660 prisoners from 42 countries who were captured during the war against Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations.
A Pentagon official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the "strongly worded" letter made it clear that the secretary of state wanted the Defense Department (search) to quickly determine which prisoners could be released.
Human rights advocates also have repeatedly criticized the Bush administration plan to hold prisoners indefinitely and without trial, charges or access to lawyers. And some groups last month called for the immediate release of juveniles when it was learned that several boys between ages 13 and 16 were being held at the naval base in Cuba.
Since the prison was opened in January 2002, only 22 people are known to have been released. They were all men, including one who was mentally ill and another reported to be in his 70s.
The Defense and State departments, FBI and CIA are all involved in the operation to hold and question the prisoners. The Pentagon has refused to disclose the exact number of prisoners, their names or any other details.
A senior State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Saturday that State and Defense officials have exchanged letters and have met to discuss the detentions.
"The question is how do we resolve their status over time," said the State Department official, who was on the Powell trip to the Mideast.
Citing complaints from eight allies whose citizens are among the prisoners, Powell said in the letter that mishandling the detainees undermines efforts to win international cooperation in the war on terror, U.S. News and World Report reported.
Powell asked Rumsfeld why it is taking so long to reach "a final determination" on the prisoners' fate, and Rumsfeld later agreed to speed up the release of around 100 detainees sought by the United Kingdom, Russia, Pakistan and Spain, the magazine said.
Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman declined to confirm the communications between the two and said he was unaware of a release agreement.
Rumsfeld has said the prisoners were being interrogated for any information they had on planned terrorist activities. He said they would continue to be held indefinitely until it is determined they pose no threat and until interrogators were convinced they had no more useful intelligence to offer.
Officials said long ago that some prisoners could be released to their countries of origin and that negotiations were underway. No results of those talks were ever announced.
Pentagon officials said Friday they had finished writing the rules for trying terrorist suspects in military tribunals.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, the officials said they have some suspects in mind who might be candidates for military trials, but that no final decisions have been made.
It was not known if the suspects included prisoners held at Guantanamo. A number of high-level Al Qaeda figures are not being held there, but rather at secret locations elsewhere, officials have said.