Are They POWs or Terrorists?

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U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld visits Camp X-Ray

On Sunday, the Bush Administration's internal rift over prisoners taken in the war on terrorism stepped right up to the chain-link doors of the cells holding Taliban and Al-Qaeda captives at Guantanamo. As Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld walked into Camp X-Ray, a detainee who had just finished washing his face wrapped his towel over his hair in the manner of Arab headwear. A U.S. military police guard told him to take it off, worried that weapons — like the rocks Guantanamo brass suspect the detainees may be using to write covert notes of revolt to one another — could be hidden inside the towel. But Rumsfeld, who arrived in the same white military bus that brought the prisoners to their cells from the battlefields of Afghanistan, made a point of not talking to the captives. And the silence was meant to help drive home the White House's point: there's nothing to talk about, at least not regarding the detainees' legal status.

In fact, on the ferry ride across Guantanamo Bay to the prison, where the (so far) 158 detainees are locked up in 8 ft.-by-8 ft. cells, Rumsfeld chided what he called "loose talk" about whether any of the captives could be considered anything but terrorists and "unlawful combatants." It was a not-so-oblique rebuke to Secretary of State Colin Powell's suggestion the day before — that the Administration reconsider whether to accord even unlawful combatants treatment prescribed for war prisoners under the Genevea Convention, if only to ensure that U.S. prisoners of war continue to receive it in the future. "There are no ambiguities in this case," Rumsfeld insisted, wearing shirt sleeves and a Defense Department cap, adding that it would be "a terribly dangerous thing" to "blur the distinction" between POWs and combatants "who have been trained to kill innocent people."

It was the second time in two days that Powell's preference for adherence to the Convention's articles was criticized by Bush advisers, who are adamant that the treaty does not apply to the Taliban and Al-Qaeda prisoners. The White House is worried that granting the detainees anything but a terrorist label will make it harder to interrogate them about Osama bin Laden's network. Nevertheless, at a National Security Council meeting today, they were expected to review the detainees' status.

But if the Administration's internal debate was starting to look like a good cop-bad cop routine, Rumsfeld's prison tour — which included liberal Democratic Senators like California's Diane Feinstein, a prisons expert — seemed to have least blunted international criticism about the detainees' treatment at Camp X-Ray. "I would rather be in an 8-by-8 cell with a (tropical) breeze than to be locked down at Folsom Prison," Feinstein said after her own close-up look at conditions inside X-Ray, an arid patch beneath Guantanamo's hills where Haitian refugees were once held. Another Democratic Senator, Hawaii's Daniel Inouye, said the U.S.'s treatment of the detainees' was "not only humanitarian but (perhaps) overly so."

Military brass at the Guantanamo naval base took pains over the weekend to spotlight the dietary, medical and religious provisions made for the captives. Congress, meanwhile, is poised to approve construction of new prison units at Guantanamo designed with terrorist detention in mind — a project that could turn Gitmo, until last month a neglected Caribbean naval station, into a key military Alcatraz. "We're going to be in this sort of thing for a long time," said Alaska Senator Ted Stevens. And that includes, it seems, the disagreement over how to label these prisoners as well as house them.