WASHINGTON — A senior American diplomat acknowledged Thursday that the Guantanamo Bay detention center is a "lightning rod'' for international criticism and a "source of frustration'' for the Bush administration.
But State Department legal adviser John Bellinger told members of the U.S. Helsinki Commission meeting on Capitol Hill that the government has been working with dozens of countries to try to find places to transfer some of the detainees. He said he's traveled around the globe, explaining and defending the detention facility to foreign governments critical of its existence.
"We fully and acutely realize Guantanamo has become a lightning rod for criticism around the world," Bellinger said, defending the camps as housing suspected terrorists ''who need to be detained somewhere.
"We're working to move to the day that Guantanamo could be closed," he said. "But closing Guantanamo is easier said than done."
White House officials said late Thursday that President Bush wants to close the detention facility but that he isn't nearing a decision to do so. They disputed an Associated Press report that said presidential advisers would discuss the issue at a White House meeting on Friday.
"The president has long expressed a desire to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility and to do so in a responsible way," White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said. "A number of steps need to take place before that can happen, such as setting up military commissions and the repatriation to their home countries of detainees who have been cleared for released. These and other steps have not been completed. No decisions on the future of Guantanamo Bay are imminent, and there will not be a White House meeting tomorrow."
State Department officials said they were also unaware of any movement to close the facility.
The detainee population in the prison camps that front the Caribbean in remote southeast Cuba stands at "approximately 375," according to a Pentagon statement issued this week.
Officials are negotiating with other countries to take about 80 of them, including men who've been held at the U.S. Navy base for more than five years — many of them without being charged.
Calls to close the facility have gained traction since Democrats took control of Congress. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., added his voice Thursday, calling the facility an "international disgrace that every day continues to sully this great nation's good reputation."
But after listening to a report on efforts to find countries willing to take detainees, Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla., who chairs the human rights commission known as the Helsinki Commission, scolded Europe to help the United States close the camp.
"I believe Guantanamo has to be closed, over and out," Hastings said. "'But if Europe isn't prepared to stand up and take their share, I believe they ought to mute some of their criticism."
Hastings held the session amid persistent protests from Code Pink, antiwar advocates who have become part of the debate on Bush administration policies, which permit indefinite detention of suspected terrorists without charges.
When Bellinger declared universal agreement that Guantanamo captives need to be detained, some protesters hissed, "Lies."
The committee met just days after the Defense Department revealed that it had transferred six long-held captives out of the prison camps — four to Yemen and two to Tunisia.
(Ron Hutcheson and Miami Herald staff writer Carol Rosenberg contributed to this report.)