WASHINGTON – The United States is fighting a "raging intelligence war" with suspected terrorists held at a high-security prison at Guantanamo Bay (search), Cuba, a senior Pentagon official says.
"It's being conducted with a great sense of urgency," Thomas O'Connell, who oversees Pentagon policy on the holding, interrogation and release of suspects at Guantanamo, said in an interview Monday.
Interrogations and related work are conducted 24 hours a day, seven days a week, O'Connell said. He asserted that satisfactory progress is being made in extracting useful information, despite the wall of hatred and defiance the prisoners throw daily at their questioners.
Several of the approximately 660 suspects being detained have provided timely information that has helped avert terrorist attacks and led to additional arrests, he said. But others refuse to cooperate and in some other cases, U.S. officials have been unable to obtain basic information to determine whether prisoners are in a position to know much of value.
"Time is a double-edged sword because we're finding that the longer some stay, the more they talk," said O'Connell, a former Army intelligence officer whose has been assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict since late July. On the other hand, the longer it takes to get them talking, the more outdated their information becomes.
Intelligence gleaned from interrogations there and from arrests in Europe is believed to have helped thwart several attacks planned against U.S. targets in Italy, Britain and Singapore (search). Last February, the FBI said it based a public warning of a possible terrorist attack against U.S. interests in Yemen (search) on information from detainees at Guantanamo and in Afghanistan.
An undisclosed number of suspects have been held at Guantanamo since it opened in January last year with the arrival of suspected Al Qaeda (search) and Taliban (search) terrorists captured in the war in Afghanistan.
Of the 88 released so far -- including 20 last Friday -- the United States has agreed that 84 could be freed once they arrived in their home countries. The other four were repatriated to Saudi Arabia several months ago, to continue in detention there under a U.S.-Saudi agreement.
Officials say there are plans to send dozens more home soon. They likely will get out of the Guantanamo Bay only on condition that their governments continue to investigate and imprison them upon repatriation, two senior U.S officials said.
The additional repatriations stem from negotiations sped up after allies complained the Bush administration was taking too long to resolve the cases of hundreds captured in the global war on terrorism and held incommunicado, without charges and without access to lawyers, one official said.
Another senior defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Washington is quietly discussing with China the terms under which an undisclosed number of Chinese Muslim separatists would be released from Guantanamo and returned to China. The Turkic-speaking ethnic Uighurs are waging a low-intensity campaign of bombings and armed attacks in Xingjiang, in China's far northwest, to win greater autonomy from the central government in Beijing.
The U.S. official said the Uighurs (search) at Guantanamo Bay were captured in Afghanistan, but the United States has no further interest in holding them because they are not believed to pose a threat to U.S. interests. Their main aim is to return to Xingjiang (search) and fight for independence - a goal they apparently sought to further by training in Afghanistan.
However, the United States is concerned that if the Uighurs were released to Chinese authorities, they would be mistreated. The U.S. official said Washington is seeking assurances from Beijing on humane treatment.
The official would not disclose the number of Uighurs held at Guantanamo but apparently there are more than a dozen.
The Pentagon's policy is to not disclose the exact number of prisoners at Guantanamo or say where they are from.
U.S. officials in July said they had identified six prisoners at Guantanamo who might go before U.S. military tribunals authorized especially for the war on terror. The process stalled after the British government, with two citizens facing trial, sought negotiations to change some tribunal rules considered by critics to fall short of acceptable standards of justice.
The U.S.-U.K. talks are entering their fifth month and have expanded to seek resolution of the cases of seven other Britons held at Guantanamo as well, officials said.