WASHINGTON (IPS/GIN) – Two weeks after the Bush administration began attacking Amnesty International for calling the U.S. detention practices against suspected terrorists “the gulag of our times,” it finds itself increasingly on the defensive on the issue.

With the Senate Judiciary Committee poised to hold unprecedented hearings this week on the detention policies, the issue is also highlighting growing strains among Republicans on the conduct of the administration’s “global war on terror.”

The latest broadside was issued June 13 by Republican Senator John McCain who said Washington should either try the 520 detainees currently held at the Guantanamo Bay naval base in Cuba or let them go home.


“I think the key to this is to move the judicial process forward, so that these individuals will be brought to trial for any crime that they are accused of, rather than residing in the Guantanamo facility in perpetuity,” Sen. McCain, a former prisoner of war in Vietnam, told reporters at a Capitol Hill press conference called by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist.

He recalled that he and two Democratic senators had sent a letter to Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld after visiting Guantanamo two years ago, recommending that he “try ‘em or release them.”

Sen. Frist, who had called the press conference to urge Democrats to stop blocking the confirmation of Pres. Bush’s UN ambassador-designate, John Bolton, quickly came to the administration’s defense, asserting that Washington should not give in to the growing clamor to close the Guantanamo facility, as has been urged by prominent Democrats and at least one Bush loyalist recently.

“To cut and run because of image problems is a wrong, wrong thing to do,” he stressed, although he conceded that Guantanamo had created public relations problems for Washington.

The colloquy helped illustrate the growing tensions within the Republican Party over the detention issue which, for the moment, is the most prominent of a number of issues raised by the administration’s wider war on terror, including the conduct of the Iraq war, that are causing strains within the party.

After a period of relative quiet, the plight of prisoners held at Guantanamo grabbed the spotlight in May after Newsweek reported, on an unreliable source, an incident in which interrogators at Guantanamo had allegedly flushed a Qu’ran down a toilet. Then came the Amnesty report that characterized Washington’s worldwide detention system as “the gulag of our times.”

In both cases, the administration and its right-wing supporters reacted with righteous indignation and, at least initially, with some success.

But as new reports of abuses have continued to dribble out–most recently a detailed Time magazine report regarding the detention and interrogation of one suspected hijacker–senior officials have found that the issue has blown back in their faces.

This has taken a toll. In the context of Pres. Bush’s declining public approval ratings, his failure to gain traction on proposals for social security reform, continuing violence in Iraq and early jockeying for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination, the detention controversy has contributed to growing restiveness in Republican ranks. This, in turn, has encouraged Democrats and mainstream media to become more critical.

Thus, the recent suggestion made independently by former President Jimmy Carter and the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Joseph Biden, that the Guantanamo prison be closed down, has gained an unexpected momentum.

First, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter announced that his committee would hold hearings on the status of detainees at Guantanamo.

On June 10, long-time Bush crony and Florida Senator Mel Martinez suggested that closing the prison may indeed be the appropriate thing to do.

“It’s become an icon for bad stories and, at some point, you wonder the cost-benefit ratio,” he said. “How much do you get out of having that facility there? Is it serving all the purposes you thought it would serve when initially you began it, or can this be done some other way a little better?”

Without explicitly endorsing Guantanamo’s closure, Nebraska Republican Senator Chuck Hagel, another likely presidential candidate, also noted that the facility had become a serious “image” problem. “It’s identifiable with, for right or wrong, a part of America that people in the world believe is a power, an empire that pushes people around: We do it our way; we don’t live up to our commitments to multilateral institutions.”

Sen. Hagel also addressed the broader controversy of how the U.S. can indefinitely hold detainees essentially incommunicado and without charges or trial. “This can’t be a situation where we hold them forever and ever and ever until they die of old age,” he said.

The negative publicity caused by Guantanamo is causing divisions even within the administration, according to Representative Duncan Hunter, the Republican chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and the Pentagon’s staunchest defender.

“I think they’re divided,” he said in a June 12 television interview. “Some members of the White House,” he added, believe that, if the prison were closed, “you shorten the news stories, you shorten the heated debate, and you get it off the table and you move on.”

Pres. Bush himself has been coy on the issue. Asked on June 8 about closing Guantanamo, he said, “We’re exploring all alternatives as to how best to do the main objective, which is to protect America. What we don’t want to do is let somebody out that comes back and harms us.”

If Pres. Bush has been ambivalent, the same has not been true for Mr. Cheney or Secy. Rumsfeld, who have both insisted that the administration is not considering closing Guantanamo or altering its treatment of detainees.

Mr. Cheney, an aggressive defender of U.S. detention policies, insisted, during a lengthy interview with Fox News June 13, that detainees were being treated humanely and that Guantanamo was “an essential part of our strategy of prevailing and winning in the ongoing war on terror… The important thing here to understand is that the people that are at Guantanamo are bad people.”

Contrary to other administration officials, as well as experts on public diplomacy, Mr. Cheney also insisted that U.S. detention policies and Guantanamo, in particular, were not harming Washington’s image around the world.

“Now, does this hurt us from the standpoint of international opinion? I frankly don’t think so,” he said. “And my personal view of it is that those who are most urgently advocating that we shut down Guantanamo probably don’t agree with our policies anyway.”

He claimed that more than 200 Guantanamo detainees had been returned to their home countries over the past three years, of whom 10 have since been recaptured or killed on the battlefield. Some 38 detainees, he said, had been returned after Pentagon tribunals determined that they did not pose a threat, leaving about 520 “enemy combatants.”

Mr. Cheney did not address the situation of dozens of other detainees who are believed held in U.S. secret facilities around the world or who have been “rendered” by the CIA for questioning by foreign intelligence services, such as those of Egypt.

Meanwhile, Rep. Hunter challenged critics, particularly Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, to sample what he called a typical meal for the detainees laid out before reporters in his office. “This is representative of what these killers are given every day,” he said, pointing to a plate of lemon-pepper chicken, vegetables, fruit and bread.

“Does he think lemon fish is food enough?” he asked, referring to Mr. Specter, who will chair the hearings on detainee treatment.