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Rumsfeld Answers Uproar about Guantanamo Detainees - 2002-01-22

For more than an hour Tuesday, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld fielded questions about the treatment of Taleban and al-Qaida detainees at the U.S. base in Cuba.

It is a perception problem that even defense officials concede has caught the Pentagon largely by surprise, charges that Taleban and al-Qaida detainees held at a U.S. base in Cuba are somehow being mistreated.

It is a problem fueled initially by photos of the detainees hooded and shackled.

But it is a problem that also may have been fueled by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld himself a week ago in a roundtable discussion with four radio reporters, one of them British.

That reporter's persistent questions about treatment of the detainees led to this comment by Mr. Rumsfeld: "I do not feel even the slightest concern about their treatment. They are being treated vastly better than they treated anybody else over the last several years and vastly better than was their circumstance when they were found."

Though defense officials maintain there was nothing insensitive about the comment, it was depicted overseas as a sign that Mr. Rumsfeld did not care whether treatment of the detainees raised international concern.

Human rights groups have voiced concern. Human Rights Watch has criticized the use of open-air, chain-link cages to hold the detainees until more permanent facilities are built.

Amnesty International has questioned the hooding, shackling and possible sedating of detainees during their transfer from Afghanistan to Cuba.

But even such rights groups appear to be taking special care. William Shultz, executive director of Amnesty International USA, stressed in an article for The New York Times [1/19] that the concerns of human rights organizations are not motivated by sympathy for prisoners guilty of crimes. He noted that Amnesty had for years denounced the Taleban for its repressive rule.

Which sounds more like Defense Secretary Rumsfeld in his recent radio interview. "We don't expect everyone to agree with us all the time, nor should anyone else think that we'll agree with them all the time," he said. "But what's happened here is that we were attacked, thousands of people were killed. We've gone into Afghanistan and we've put our hands on several hundred people who are people that were running around killing people and we're in the process of interrogating them. I would think that most people would think that's a fairly reasonable approach."

Mr. Rumsfeld concedes the facilities at the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay are not those of some luxury resort. But the detainees are receiving regular meals, showers, recreation and medical treatment if needed.

For Mr. Rumsfeld, anyone who suggests the detainees are being mistreated is wrong. "Let there be no doubt, the treatment of the detainees in Guantanamo Bay is proper, it's humane, it's appropriate, and it is fully consistent with international conventions," he said. "No detainee has been harmed, no detainee has been mistreated in any way. And the numerous articles, statements, questions, allegations, and breathless reports on television are undoubtedly by people who are either uninformed, misinformed or poorly informed."

One Pentagon official says the critics of U.S. policy should ask the much-abused American prisoners of war held during the Vietnam war what they think of the treatment afforded the Taleban and al-Qaida detainees. The official says he thinks that would quickly mute the critics and put the situation at Guantanamo Bay in what he sees as its proper perspective.