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Guantanamo Prisoners Could Be Held For Years, U.S. Officials Say

By Neil A. Lewis and Eric Schmitt

The New York Times -- WASHINGTON

Senior Defense Department officials said Thursday that they were planning to keep a large portion of the detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, there for many years, perhaps indefinitely.

The officials said they would soon set up a panel to review the long-term prisoners’ situation annually to determine whether they remained a threat to the United States or could be released.

The officials described the panel as a “quasi-parole board” that would comprise three members before whom prisoners could personally plead their case for release. At the same time, the officials said, in the coming months they will continue to release to their home governments many other prisoners they have deemed not to be a continuing danger.

The officials spoke as part of a Pentagon effort to counter sharp criticism by members of human rights groups and foreign governments about the situation at Guantanamo, where some 650 people are being held under maximum security, some as long as two years without being charged with any offense. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is scheduled to discuss the matter in a speech in Miami on Friday.

One senior Defense Department official who spoke on the condition of anonymity said that critics in the United States and abroad had greatly misunderstood the situation at Guantanamo and the need to detain so many people without charging them.

“We feel very much like we are in an active war,” said the official, asserting that the civilian law enforcement model in which people are prosecuted for crimes or set free did not apply. “What we’re doing at Guantanamo is more understandable in the war context,” the official said.

The official said that while some critics worry about the rights of the detainees, the Pentagon was more concerned with “the rights of the soldiers having these people not going back to the battlefield” and the rights of the soldiers’ families not to have their relatives exposed to the potential danger of facing the prisoners in combat.

Many of the prisoners, a senior military official said, remain committed to indiscriminately killing American civilians and soldiers and would be too dangerous to release.

The argument that the detentions at Guantanamo should be seen in a wartime context is, however, unlikely to satisfy many critics. Michael Ratner, the president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, said that “the idea that you could theoretically keep someone locked up forever under these circumstances is reprehensible.” Ratner, whose New York-based organization has brought lawsuits challenging the Guantanamo detentions, said he was taken aback by what he called the administration’s brazenness.

“It’s nothing to do with law as any person should understand it, at least since the Magna Carta,” he said. “How do you know without a trial that these people are even dangerous?. It all depends on the military’s word.”

But the defense and military officials insisted that many of the prisoners at Guantanamo were “the worst of the worst.” They said that over the course of many months of interrogation and grueling intelligence work, they had come to believe that many of the people being held were senior operatives of al-Qaida who had been involved in active plots against Americans.