The Bush administration distanced itself Monday from a remark by a senior U.S. official calling the suicide of three prisoners at the Guantanamo Bay detention center a public relations move. The State Department said the choice of words was unfortunate.
The State Department has delivered an indirect rebuke to one of its own officials, with a spokesman disavowing her depiction of the Guantanamo deaths as a public relations stunt, and stressing that the United States has serious concern about suicides at the facility.
The suicides of two Saudi Arabian and one Yemeni national early Saturday were the first inmate deaths since the United States began holding terrorism suspects there in 2002, and they spurred renewed criticism of the controversial facility.
The subsequent comment to the BBC by Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy Colleen Graffy that the suicides were "a good P.R. move" to draw attention prompted additional criticism from human rights groups and in media commentaries.
At a news briefing State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack said the Bush administration's view is that the deaths were not a public relations stunt, while a senior official who spoke to reporters said Graffy's choice of words was rather unfortunate.
McCormack noted that President Bush had expressed concern about the deaths Saturday, and has said he looks forward to the time when the Guantanamo Bay facility can be closed:
"We have no desire to be the world's jailers," said Sean McCormack. "We would look forward to the day at some point when Guantanamo Bay would close down. But the fact of the matter is that it right now houses some very dangerous people who are a threat not only to American citizens but other people around the world."
The Guantanamo site currently holds about 460 prisoners, mainly suspected al-Qaida and Taleban members captured after the U.S. led-invasion of Afghanistan.
Scores of prisoners have been repatriated, but the process has been slowed by the need for agreements with the affected countries that the prisoners will not be mistreated or allowed to return to terrorist activity.
McCormack said the United States is discussing the return of the remains of those who took their own lives with the governments of Saudi Arabia and Yemen.
In the meantime, he said the bodies are being treated with respect according to religious customs, and that the United States is conducting outreach in the Islamic world to explain its handling of the matter.
A senior official said he did not think Graffy would face disciplinary action, but said there was an expectation that all officials would treat the issue with greater sensitivity.
In that regard, he said there had been no repeat of another controversial comment, by the commander of the Guantanamo site, Navy Rear Admiral Harry Harris, that the suicides had been what he called, an act of "asymmetrical warfare" against the United States.