CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. – The United States should begin phasing out its detention center at Guantanamo Bay, where terrorist suspects are being held, freshman U.S. Sen. Jim Webb told a group of University of Virginia politics students Monday.
Webb said he agreed early in the War on Terror that such a facility was needed. "But there comes a point where people need to be dealt with through the legal system," Webb said. "I think that time has come."
About 385 men are imprisoned at the U.S. Naval Base in southeast Cuba on suspicion of links to Al Qaeda or the Taliban. Some have been held for more than five years.
After speaking to the students in professor Larry J. Sabato's class on American politics, Webb told reporters that the detainees should either be declared prisoners of war or charged in the American judicial system if the U.S. continues to hold them captive.
"We can't just continue to hold people in limbo without charges for this period of time and still call ourselves Americans," Webb said.
His remarks came a week after the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review whether the detainees have a right to challenge their imprisonment in federal court. U.S. Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, also has called for shutting down the prison camp.
Webb, a best-selling novelist and former Reagan administration Navy secretary who never had held elected office, upset Republican Sen. George Allen in November's election, tipping control of the Senate to Democrats and ending Allen's presidential aspirations.
Sabato called it "one of the most extraordinary upsets in American history" and urged his students to remember it when they face difficult challenges.
Webb said one of the surprises of his first three months in office has been the productivity of weekly Democratic caucus meetings.
"We shut the door with no staff in there and truly debate and discuss the issues," he said.
On the negative side, he said he doesn't like being tied down by the schedule set by the Senate leadership. Webb said senators cannot stray more than 15 minutes from the floor on days that votes are scheduled.
"It inhibits your ability to do anything but stay in the Senate complex," he said.
Webb spent much of the class time discussing and answering questions about his well-known opposition to the war in Iraq. He said he is encouraged that the Bush administration — especially Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice — is beginning to show more willingness to pursue a diplomatic solution, but he said Congress must "keep the pressure on."
On the domestic front, Webb said he is concerned about a criminal justice system that has landed 2 million Americans in jail or prison.
"There's something wrong," Webb said, adding that the issue is one he has targeted for long-range study.
Former Gov. Mark R. Warner will speak to Sabato's class Wednesday.