President Bush expressed "serious concern" Saturday over the suicides at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay and directed an aggressive effort by his administration to reach out diplomatically while it investigates.
"He wants to make sure that this thing is done right from all points of view," White House press secretary Tony Snow said Saturday evening.
Bush, who is spending the weekend at Camp David, was notified at 7:45 a.m. EDT.
Snow said it was during his daily intelligence briefing just afterward when the president voiced his concern over the incident and directed that the bodies be "treated humanely and with cultural sensitivity" to show respect for Muslim traditions regarding the dead.The administration's controversial detentions at Guantanamo Bay of hundreds of men on suspicion of links to Al Qaeda and the Taliban, many of them for up to 4 1/2 years and without charge, is a point of contention between the United States and many of its allies in Europe in the Mideast.
Reflecting the potential diplomatic headaches that the suicides could create for the White House, they prompted an extraordinary round of global outreach by officials from the White House's National Security Council, the State Department and Bush's congressional liasons.
Within hours, the Bush administration had contacted the United Nations, the European Union, most European nations individually, the embassies of Mideast and near-Mideast countries, the International Committee of the Red Cross, bipartisan members of the congressional leadership and the ranking Republican and Democratic members of the House and Senate Foreign Relations and Intelligence committees, Snow said.
"There's been an aggressive effort not only on the part of the Pentagon to begin investigating and follow proper procedures and also the White House," Snow said. "It's kind of common sense. Guantanamo is obviously an issue of some concern."
The subject of the prison had come up just a day before in talks between Bush and Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, one of the president's staunch supporters who has been pushing Washington to close the prison. Bush defended the detentions, while saying his ultimate goal is to see Guantanamo emptied through releases or transfers of prisoners to their home countries.
Snow said there was "no direct indication" that the suicides were connected to the killing this week of terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in a U.S. airstrike in Iraq.
He also said that "to the best of anybody's knowledge" all proper procedures were followed to prevent the suicides at a facility where a few dozen had been previously attempted. But Snow said the investigation would continue until those sorts of questions were fully answered.
"These things do happen and it's an awful thing," he said. "People are going to take a very careful look at the situation there."