WASHINGTON – While Vice President Dick Cheney and some lawmakers say terror suspects being held at Guantanamo Bay (search) are being fed better than U.S. troops in a war zone, another says the detention center is a "national disgrace, an international embarrassment to us and to our ideals, and a festering threat to our security."
"We have not been overly harsh … we have an obligation to treat these individuals as we have been treating them — as enemy combatants," Cheney said Monday during an appearance at the National Press Club in Washington, noting that despite cries that the United States is violating the Geneva Conventions, those being held do not qualify for that treaty because they are unlawful combatants operating outside the laws of war.
But "in spite of that they are still treated with respect and dignity," the vice president noted.
"They are a vital source of intelligence information. They've given us useful information that has been used in pursuing our aims and objectives in the War on Terror. I think that whatever one's views might be with respect to Guantanamo, this is an essential part of our strategy for prevailing and winning in the ongoing War on Terror (search)."
Other Republican lawmakers weighed in, saying U.S. taxpayers are footing the bill for good treatment at the detention center in Cuba.
"The inmates in Guantanamo have never eaten better, they've never been treated better … the idea that we are somehow torturing people in Guantanamo is absolutely not true, unless you consider eating chicken three days a week is torture," House Armed Services Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter (search), R-Calif., said during a press conference Monday, handing out copies of inmate menus — which feature meals such as lemon chicken — to reporters.
"They are being treated well and yet the story is being given that somehow they're being abused."
Meanwhile, Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy (search), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said on the Senate floor Monday that much goes on at the American naval base in Cuba that is unknown to the general public and that the administration's standard line of "trust us" is no longer valid.
"More than three years later, the one thing we know for sure about Guantanamo is that any trust we may have had was misplaced," Leahy said, quoting an administration official as saying the situation in the detention center is "the legal equivalent of outer space."
"Guantanamo has not made our country safer," Leahy said. "It is increasingly clear that the administration's policies have seriously damaged our reputation in the world and that they are making us less safe. The stain of Guantanamo has become the primary recruiting tool for our enemies."
The argument continued after Time magazine reported Sunday on an 84-page document detailing the interrogation of one detainee, Mohamed al-Qahtani (search), who was captured on the battlefield in Afghanistan and is suspected of being the so-called "20th hijacker" involved in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks (search).
Time said interrogators used such techniques as dripping water on al-Qahtani's head, strip-searching him and making him stand nude, and depriving him of sleep. The Defense Department said in a statement Sunday that the interrogation of the man with links to Al Qaeda and Usama bin Laden (search) "was guided by a very detailed plan and conducted by trained professionals motivated by a desire to gain actionable intelligence, to include information that might prevent additional attacks on America."
Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said Monday: "My personal feeling is that Guantanamo is just a sign of the problems we're having. From the time of Abu Ghraib, this country has been embarrassed by many minds, humiliated... and Guantanamo is just another series of problems that we have with the whole Iraq policy."
Cheney: Gitmo Terror Suspects Are 'Hard Core'
Some lawmakers have recently called for the United States to close the detention center in Cuba to avoid further media scrutiny. But in an interview to be aired at 9 p.m. EDT Monday night on FOX News Channel, Cheney stressed that the terror suspects being held at Guantanamo are "bad people" and will continue to be held there.
"The important thing here to understand is that the people that are at Guantanamo are bad people," the vice president told Sean Hannity, co-host of "Hannity & Colmes." "I mean, these are terrorists for the most part. These are people that were captured in the battlefield of Afghanistan or rounded up as part of the Al Qaeda network."
He added: "We've already screened the detainees there and released a number, sent them back to their home countries … But what's left is hard core."
Watch FNC's "Hannity and Colmes" at 9 p.m. EDT Monday night to see Sean Hannity's interview with Vice President Dick Cheney.
Cheney reiterated that sentiment on Monday when speaking at the National Press Club event, and said, "I think people there are being treated far better than they expected to be treated by any other government on Earth."
The White House, meanwhile, said Monday that all options remain open about Guantanamo Bay's future.
"We should never limit our options," said White House spokesman Scott McClellan.
GOP: Detainees Treated Better Than Regular Prisoners
Human rights activists and some lawmakers — mostly Democrats — want the prison closed. President Bush has said his administration is "exploring all alternatives" for detaining the 540 prisoners, some of whom have been held for more than three years without charge.
Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., has said Guantanamo has "become an icon for bad stories and at some point you wonder the cost-benefit ratio."
While Martinez has not called for the facility to be closed, the lawmaker said it's not a bad idea to look into the issue of shutting the facility. Martinez has said, however, that prisoners at Guantanamo Bay are treated better there than those in Florida's Orange County jail.
During his press conference Monday, Hunter noted that the $2.5 million food contract to feed prisoners at Guantanamo Bay is much more than that spent to care for prisoners in regular U.S. prisons — many of which house much more minor criminals — all at U.S. taxpayers' expense.
"They are being treated well and yet the story is being given that somehow they're being abused," Hunter said, noting that eating MREs [meals ready-to-eat] that U.S. troops eat several times a day in the field are considered "harsh techniques" at Guantanamo. "We've gone to great lengths to take care of them and to give them food that's consistent with their religious practices … I think it's appropriate that we set the record straight on this … Guantanamo is head and shoulders above the average standard for prisoners."
Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, said the best place for the terrorists "bent on killing Americans and destroying freedom" is Guantanamo Bay and it should remain in place until it's no longer useful in the War on Terror.
"This facility should never be located on mainland U.S. soil where it could easily be targeted by terrorists and put Americans in harm's way … We should never put Americans' lives at risk simply to appease people who will never accept America or our way of life," she said.
But lawmakers like Leahy argue that allegations of reports of abuse are placing the United States at risk both at home and abroad.
"Guantanamo Bay is causing immeasurable damage to our reputation as a defender of democracy and a beacon of human rights around the world," Leahy said Monday. "It has become a legal black hole and a rallying cry for our enemies, fueling hostility against us and against our policies … the administration has placed this nation in an untenable situation, and it is time for Congress to demand a way out. "
The Defense Department said in response, "the interrogation of Kahtani has enabled the Department of Defense to gain a clear picture of Kahtani's strong connection to Al Qaeda leadership to include Usama Bin Laden."
It added that al-Qahtani provided valuable information on the logistics of the Sept. 11 attacks and how bin Laden evaded capture by U.S. forces.
"The Department of Defense does not wish to hold detainees longer than necessary and effective processes are in place to regularly review the status of enemy combatants," the Pentagon said, noting that the "vast majority" of detainees that have been held in Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantanamo have been released; about 520 detainees are in custody in Guantanamo now.
But those released or transferred do have risks, the Pentagon added, saying, "there have been approximately a dozen former detainees who were released from Guantanamo and have since taken part in anti-coalition activities."