WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on Tuesday defended the Guantanamo prison against critics who want it closed by saying U.S. taxpayers have a big financial stake in it and no other facility could replace it.
Separately, two leading Senate Republicans said the prison for foreign terrorism suspects at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, had created an image problem for the United States, but did not call for it to be closed.
"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 Guantanamo facility in perpetuity," Arizona Sen. John McCain said.
Asked to explain the advantage of keeping the Guantanamo prison rather than starting over somewhere else, Rumsfeld told a Pentagon briefing, "I don't know any place where we have infrastructure that's appropriate for that sizable group of people. The investment's been made."
The United States holds about 520 detainees from more than 40 countries at the Guantanamo prison camp, which it opened in January 2002 after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on America. Many have been held for more than three years. Only four have been charged.
Rumsfeld said U.S. taxpayers have invested more than $100 million in military construction for the Guantanamo prison, and taxpayers are spending $90-$95 million annually to operate it.
"The United States government, let alone the U.S. military, does not want to be in the position of holding suspected terrorists any longer than is absolutely necessary," Rumsfeld said. "But as long as there remains a need to keep terrorists from striking again, a facility will continue to be needed."
"The real problem is not Guantanamo Bay," Rumsfeld said. "The problem is that, to a large extent, we are in unexplored territory with this unconventional and complex struggle against extremism. Traditional doctrines covering criminals and military prisoners do not apply well enough."
"They're not common car thieves," Rumsfeld said of the Guantanamo prisoners. "They're believed to be determined killers."
Rumsfeld's comments came a day after Vice President Dick Cheney defended the prison in the face of criticism from human rights activists and some lawmakers -- mostly Democrats but a few Republicans, too. Former President Jimmy Carter and others have called for the camp's closure.
Critics have decried the indefinite detention of Guantanamo prisoners, who the United States has denied rights accorded under the Geneva Conventions to prisoners of war.
An FBI memo has accused Pentagon personnel at Guantanamo of using "torture techniques," and the Pentagon recently detailed five cases in which U.S. jailers "mishandled" the Koran.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee said, "I believe absolutely that we should not shut it down."
"Yes, there is an image challenge that we have that centers on Guantanamo, an image challenge that we have with Abu Ghraib," Frist said, referring to the prison in Iraq where U.S. forces abused and sexually humiliated prisoners.
"And if reforms or new actions need to be taken, we will do it. But to cut and run because of image problems is the wrong, wrong thing to do."
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