U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld says the United States would rather have many of the detainees held at the Guantanamo Bay detention center jailed in their home countries, but he has played down the idea of closing the facility.
The subject came up on a visit to NATO, where Secretary Rumsfeld took part in an alliance defense ministers meeting. There have been mounting calls for the Guantanamo Bay facility to be shut down, including one this week from former President Jimmy Carter.
President Bush Wednesday declined to rule out that possibility. He told Fox News, "We're exploring all alternatives as to how best to do the main objective, which is to protect America."
Secretary Rumsfeld told reporters at NATO that the United States would prefer not to hold many of the detainees at the facility, particularly Iraqis and Afghans.
"Our goal is not to obviously have these people, but to have them off the street, but in the hands of the countries of origin, for the most part," said Mr. Rumsfeld.
However, he said Washington is waiting until Iraqi and Afghan authorities have the ability to handle dangerous prisoners.
"We have some that we would be delighted to release, large numbers as a matter of fact that we would like to give to the Iraqi government," he added. "But they lack the appropriate prisons, and the criminal justice system, at the present time to manage them and try them. We've been urging the Afghan government to get itself arranged with the appropriate kinds of prisons and criminal justice system, so that they could take the Afghans off our hands."
At the same time, Secretary Rumsfeld played down the idea of closing Guantanamo. He said it raises a lot of questions. "if you close it, where would you go," he said.
The defense secretary said Guantanamo prisoners have given valuable information to interrogators that has saved lives by helping the authorities prevent attacks. He estimated that thousands of people have been detained at Guantanamo in recent years, and the majority released. The prison currently holds about 540 detainees from the war on terror.