Is US looking to retool detention policy?

Officials asked Britain for advice on closing Guantánamo's detainee camp, media reports say.

More than four years after launching its wide-ranging war on terror, the US is still struggling with the issue of how to handle the conflict's prisoners.

Detaining captives without trial, as the US is doing at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, results in continuing, bitter, international criticism. Yet trying them is fraught with difficulty, as lengthy proceedings against admitted Al Qaeda member Zacarias Moussaoui have shown.

The administration's defenders say that dealing with an amorphous foe demands an ill-defined detention policy, and that there aren't any serious alternatives. Critics say that may not be the case - and that the issue is blackening the nation's name overseas.

"In a general way, the world just sees the US as this powerful entity intent on stepping on other people's rights for the sake of its own security," says Thomas Carothers, director of the democracy and rule of law project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Last weekend, reports in the British press indicated that US officials have asked the British government for advice concerning methods of closing the Guantánamo camp and repatriating its detainees.

London has launched controversial attempts to return terror suspects to home countries in North Africa and the Middle East. Lebanon, Jordan, and Libya have signed pacts promising that they will not abuse these returnees.

Publicly, US officials say that there are no immediate plans to close the Guantánamo installation, but that the US obviously will continue to weigh what to do with its approximately 500 inmates, for the long term.

"Hopefully, over the years, we will find a way to either release them to their country of origin or they will declare that they no longer want to kill us," Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Colleen Graffy said in a broadcast interview on Sunday.

In recent months the Guantánamo prison has attracted an increasing amount of international attention - unwelcome attention, in the White House's view.

Release of voluminous data about the detainees to the Associated Press, per a Freedom of Information Act request, has made some Guantánamo detainees seem like hapless victims - though others indeed have come across as committed terrorists. And a UN Commission on Human Rights report issued last month alleged that torture occurs at Guantánamo, and said that the camp should be closed without delay.

However, UN officials involved in this report never actually visited Guantánamo, notes Nile Gardiner, a security policy fellow at the Heritage Foundation.

Guantánamo's long-term future should be decided by US security needs, says Gardiner.

"At present there are no serious alternatives being proposed," he says. "It remains the best option in a highly complex global war."

Meanwhile, the sentencing trial of Mr. Zacarias Moussaoui, the only man charged in the US in connection with the Sept. 11 attacks, remained on hold as of publication time.

US District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema halted the trial on Monday, and threatened to remove the death penalty as a possible sentence, following the disclosure that a government lawyer had improperly shared testimony with witnesses.

Moussaoui has admitted being a member of Al Qaeda, and being a part of a conspiracy aimed at flying airplanes into US buildings. But he has said his role was to be in a follow-on attack, and that he had no part in Sept. 11.

His legal proceedings have dragged on for years, in part due to his own behavior. Analysts said the latest glitch seemed an inexcusable error on the part of the government lawyer, veteran Federal Aviation Administration attorney Carla Martin.

However, the glitch also had little to do with the underlying terrorism charge, say experts.

"This particular error had nothing to do with the type of case it is," says Stephen Saltzburg, a law professor at George Washington University.

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