WASHINGTON – Bush administration officials are dismissing reports that the administration is nearing a decision to close the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, although officials told FOX News late Thursday that it is something that has been under consideration.
"There is no change to the status of Guantanamo Bay," said Defense Department spokesman Bryan Whitman. "We don't have a desire to be the world's jailers, but we have some dangerous characters there who have vowed to return to the battlefield and fight. We are trying to transfer as many as possible. I know of no plans at this point to close Guantanamo Bay."
National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe said reports are incorrect that a decision on the future of Guantanamo Bay is imminent or that a critical White House meeting is scheduled on the topic on Friday.
"The president has long expressed a desire to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility and to do so in a responsible way. A number of steps need to take place before that can happen, such as setting up military commissions and the repatriation to their home countries of detainees who have been cleared for released. These and other steps have not been completed," Johndroe said.
A staff person for Gen. Peter Pace said the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman was headed to the White House for meetings on Friday, though no subject was given. Whitman would not say whether Defense Secretary Robert Gates was going to the White House.
"They have meetings on Guantanamo all the time," Whitman said. Another official said that Gates had been scheduled to attend a meeting but the session was cancelled.
Pressure to close Guantanamo has been building since a Supreme Court decision last year that found a previous system for prosecuting enemy combatants illegal. Recent rulings by military judges threw out charges against two terrorism suspects under a new tribunal scheme approved by Congress.
Those decisions have dealt a blow to the administration's efforts to begin prosecuting dozens of Guantanamo detainees regarded as the nation's most dangerous terror suspects.
One senior administration official admitted that recent rulings from the Supreme Court have led to "a lot of discussions about options," but the administration is not yet leaning one way or another.
Another official said: "We've said for a long time, we'd like to close Guantanamo Bay. The question is what to do with these dangerous men down there. Out of 375 prisoners there, the majority would not be able to be held in the U.S. prison system. We couldn't secure a conviction. That's why we don't want to bring them stateside."
The flurry of activity by Bush administration spokesman came after The Associated Press reported Thursday that the officials nearing a decision to close the Guantanamo facility and move the terror suspects there to military prisons elsewhere.
AP reported that senior administration officials said President Bush's national security and legal advisers were expected to discuss the move at the White House on Friday and, for the first time, a consensus appeared to be developing.
The advisers were to consider a new proposal to shut the center and transfer detainees to one or more Defense Department facilities, including the maximum security military prison at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas, where they could face trial, said the officials. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were discussing internal deliberations.
Officials familiar with the agenda of the Friday meeting said Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff, National Intelligence Director Mike McConnell, Gates and Pace were to attend.
But Justice Department officials told FOX News the attorney general had no plan to go to the White House on Friday and Chertoff was expected to be in South Carolina.
Previous plans to close Guantanamo have run into resistance from Cheney, Gonzales and former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. But officials said the new suggestion is gaining momentum with at least tacit support from the State and Homeland Security departments, the Pentagon and the Intelligence directorate.
According to sources at the State Department, officials in the department's office of the Ambassador at Large for War Crimes Issues responded to the AP article by saying: "We wish!"
"There is nothing different this week from last, or this month from last month," one official said. "There is no 'eureka' moment here."
The U.S. government is far from finalizing all the repatriation agreements with the various countries who have nationals at Guantanamo Bay that would enable the U.S. government to return these individuals to their native countries and thus close down the detention facility, one source said. For example, the deal with Afghanistan is contingent upon that country's completion of a detention facility being built there. With other countries, some prisoners have been returned, but the U.S. government has not received sufficient guarantees about the disposition of, or even agreement to return, other relevant prisoners.
Cheney's office and the Justice Department have been dead set against closing Gitmo, arguing that moving "unlawful" enemy combatant suspects to the U.S. would give them undeserved legal rights.
In Congress, recently introduced legislation would require Guantanamo's closure. One measure would designate Fort Leavenworth as the new detention facility.
Senate Armed Services Committe Chairman Carl Levin said Democrats will offer amendments on an upcoming defense policy bill that would close Guantanamo Bay. Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein of California and Tom Harkin of Iowa also have bills to do so.
Another bill would grant new rights to those held at Guantanamo Bay, including access to lawyers regardless of whether the prisoners are put on trial. Still another would allow detainees to protest their detentions in federal court, something they are now denied.
Gates, who took over the Pentagon after Rumsfeld was forced out last year, has said Congress and the administration should work together to allow the U.S. to permanently imprison some of the more dangerous Guantanamo Bay detainees elsewhere so the facility can be closed.
Military officials told Congress this month that the prison at Fort Leavenworth has 70 open beds and that the brig at a naval base in Charleston, S.C., has space for an additional 100 prisoners.
FOX News Brett Baier, James Rosen, Jennifer Griffin and Ian McCaleb and The Associated Press contributed to this report.