WASHINGTON – The United States is helping build a prison in Afghanistan to take some prisoners now at Guantanamo Bay, but the White House said Friday it is not meant as an alternative to the detainee facility in Cuba.
The Bush administration wants to close Guantanamo Bay and move its terror suspects to prisons elsewhere and senior officials have told The Associated Press a consensus is building among the president's top advisers on how to do it.
The administration is looking to resolve the issue swiftly, White House deputy press secretary Dana Perino told reporters Friday, although she said there's no deadline set.
"Everybody is working towards the goal to meet what the president has asked them to do, which is to do it as soon as possible," she said of shuttering the facility.
However, a scheduled high-level meeting Friday on the matter was canceled after AP reported on it and the White House said no decision is imminent.
"America does not have any intention of being the world's jailer," Perino said. She noted that the United States has announced plans to release about 80 of some 375 detainees, and hopes to transfer several dozen Afghans back to Afghanistan in the near future.
The Pentagon announced Friday that a new detainee had been transferred to the center, but added it was doing its best to reduce the population there, now at the lowest point in its five-year history.
Perino said Bush has directed Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to work with her counterparts around the world to try to repatriate detainees to their home countries, make sure they are held safely and treated humanely and that they are not allowed to perpetrate acts of terrorism.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Friday that Rice continues to work to achieve that goal while she and others in the administration struggle with how to address security concerns that could result from closing Guantanamo.
"The president has said he would like nothing better than at some point to shut down Guantanamo Bay, but there are a number of steps that need to be taken between here and that stated objective and they are tough issues," McCormack said. "There are people down at Guantanamo Bay who are very, very dangerous and you can't just let them walk free."
Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman noted Defense Secretary Robert Gates supports closing the facility.
"I think that's the goal of everybody in the administration and probably most Americans — that we would rather not have to have a place like Guantanamo," he said. "But the fact remains that there are dangerous people out there that are being picked up on the battlefield that have vowed to return to the fight if released and individuals that have committed war crimes and should be held accountable for their actions."
The Pentagon announced the transfer to the center of Haroon al-Afghani, an alleged terrorist captured in the Afghan province of Nangarhar who is suspected of serving as a courier for al-Qaida leadership and commanding multiple cells of the Hezb-e-Islami militant faction.
The Guantanamo Bay prison, set up in 2002 to house terror suspects captured in military operations, mostly in Afghanistan, has been a flash point for criticism of the Bush administration at home and abroad.
Human rights advocates and foreign leaders have repeatedly called for its shutdown, and the prison is regarded by critics as proof of U.S. double standards on fundamental freedoms in the war on terrorism.
Some of the detainees have come from countries that are U.S. allies, including Britain, Saudi Arabia and Australia. Each of those governments raised complaints about the conditions or duration of detentions, or about the possibility that detainees might face death sentences.
A proposal gaining traction among Bush's top national security advisers would have some of the most dangerous suspects at Guantanamo transferred to one or more Defense Department facilities, including the maximum-security military prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., officials say.
White House spokeswoman Perino said the Friday gathering to discuss the issue was canceled because it was determined that a "meeting wasn't necessary at this time."
"There was going to be a meeting in which Guantanamo detainee issues were discussed today, but that has been taken off the schedule," she said. "That doesn't mean that people don't continue to work on what the president has asked them to do, which is work towards getting that facility closed."
Expected to consult soon, according to the officials, are Rice, Gates, Vice President Dick Cheney, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff, National Intelligence Director Mike McConnell and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Peter Pace.
The move is opposed by Cheney's office and the Justice Department, which argue that transferring prisoners to U.S. soil would give them undeserved rights and pose a threat to the United States.
But pressure on the administration to shut the facility has been mounting in recent months with a series of legal setbacks and some in Congress threatening to mandate it. The pressure has given advocates of closure some leverage in intense internal debate, the officials said.