Senators considered imposing new limits on the treatment of so-called enemy combatants Wednesday as the Bush administration defended the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
In an often confrontational hearing, members of the Senate Judiciary Committee grilled administration officials on the status of about 520 prisoners, most captured in the war in Afghanistan, being held at the prison on a U.S.-occupied sliver of Cuba.
Lawmakers clashed sharply, with Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) calling the offshore compound “an international embarrassment,” and Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) arguing that some of the detainees should be executed.
The hearings marked the latest effort on Capitol Hill to deal with prisoners classified as enemy combatants, a category created by the Bush administration to describe accused terrorists and members of Al Qaeda. The administration has cited the classification to justify holding the detainees outside of the Geneva Convention, the body of international law governing the treatment of prisoners of war.
Although no specific legislation has been offered, some members of the Judiciary Committee suggested Congress could consider measures such as limiting the amount of time courts were given to handle detainee cases.
The Supreme Court ruled in 2004 that detainees at Guantanamo Bay should have access to federal courts, but the rulings left room for interpretation.
“The only unifying factor coming out of the multitude of opinions by the Supreme Court of the United States was that it’s really the job of the Congress. And I think they made a pretty good case for that,” said Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), chairman of the Judiciary Committee.
Leahy took a harsher view.
“Guantanamo Bay is an international embarrassment to our nation, to our ideals, and it remains a festering threat to our security,” Leahy said. “Congress has abdicated its oversight responsibilities for too long. I think it’s time for Congress to demand a way out.”
Comments by Leahy and others drew a heated reply from Sessions.
“This country is not systematically abusing prisoners. We have no policy to do so,” he said. “And it’s wrong to suggest that. And it puts our soldiers at risk who are in this battle because we sent them there.”
Some of the detainees, Sessions said, “need to be executed.”
Despite domestic and international criticism of the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, congressional efforts to limit the administration’s options face significant hurdles, Specter said.
“It may be that it’s too hot to handle for Congress, [it] may be that it’s too complex to handle for Congress, or it may be that Congress wants to sit back, as we customarily do, awaiting some action with the court no matter how long it takes,” Specter said.
Military and Justice Department officials insisted prisoners were being treated legally and could be held without charges.
“It’s our position that, legally, they can be held in perpetuity,” said J. Michael Wiggins, deputy associate attorney general.
Despite problems associated with Guantanamo Bay, administration officials said there were no plans to close the prison, although reviews were underway.
Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales, speaking to reporters after a meeting with European Union officials in Brussels, said the detention camp would be closed eventually but no timetable had been established.
White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan declined to say Wednesday how long the prison would stay open, or how long individual detainees might be held.
“There are no plans at this time for shutting down Guantanamo Bay. No one has come forward with a better alternative for where we keep these enemy combatants,” McClellan told reporters at the White House.
“Eventually, you would hope that Guantanamo Bay would not be necessary, because you’ve either returned people to their countries of origin, or you’ve otherwise moved forward on the legal process and dealt with their situation,” he said.
Times staff writer Warren Vieth contributed to this report.