In his first weeks as defense secretary, Robert M. Gates repeatedly argued that the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, had become so tainted abroad that legal proceedings at Guantanamo would be viewed as illegitimate, according to senior administration officials. He told President Bush and others that it should be shut down as quickly as possible.
Gates' appeal was an effort to turn Bush's publicly stated desire to close Guantanamo into a specific plan for action, the officials said. In particular, Gates urged that trials of terror suspects be moved to the United States, both to make them more credible and because Guantanamo's continued existence hampered the broader war effort, administration officials said.
Gates' arguments were rejected after Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales and some other government lawyers expressed strong objections to moving detainees to the United States, a stance that was backed by the office of Vice President Dick Cheney, administration officials said.
As Gates was making his case, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice joined him in urging that the detention facility be closed, according to administration officials. But the high-level discussions about closing Guantanamo came to a halt after Bush rejected the approach, although officials at the National Security Council, the Pentagon and the State Department continue to analyze options for the detention of terrorist suspects.
The base at Guantanamo holds about 385 prisoners, among them 14 senior leaders of al-Qaida, including Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who were transferred to the facility last year from secret prisons run by the CIA.
Under the Pentagon's current plans, some of the prisoners, including Mohammed, will face war crimes charges under military trials that could begin later this year. "The policy remains unchanged," said Gordon D. Johndroe, a spokesman for the National Security Council.
Even so, one senior administration official who favors the closing of the facility said the battle may be renewed. "Let's see what happens to Gonzales," said the senior administration official, a reference to speculation that Gonzales will be forced to step down, or at least is significantly weakened, because of the political uproar over the firing of U.S. attorneys. "I suspect this one isn't over yet."
Details of the internal discussions on Guantanamo were described by senior officials from three departments or agencies of the executive branch, including officials who support moving rapidly to close Guantanamo and those who do not. One official made it clear that he was willing to discuss the internal deliberations in part because of Gonzales' current political weakness. The senior officials discussed the issue on ground rules of anonymity because it entailed confidential conversations.
The officials said Gates and Rice expressed their concerns about Guantanamo in conversations with Bush and others, including Gonzales, beginning in January and onward.