Governor Mitt Romney plans to visit the US military prison at Guantanamo Bay today for a tour of the detention center, an intelligence briefing, and a possible meeting with Massachusetts troops -- a trip that was viewed immediately as an effort to bolster his foreign policy credentials in anticipation of a presidential campaign.
Romney will join fellow Republican governor and potential presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee of Arkansas on the tour. They were scheduled to fly to Guantanamo this morning on a military charter flight from Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington, D.C., and then to fly back later this afternoon.
Romney's communications director, Eric Fehrnstrom, said in a statement that the Department of Defense invited all governors to the base earlier this year. Massachusetts Correction Commissioner Kathleen M. Dennehy and Romney's chief of staff, Beth Myers, will accompany the governor on the tour.
''The Department of Defense reached out to make the invitation because governors run correction facilities and probably know more than most people about the challenges posed by detention and incarceration," Fehrnstrom said in a statement. ''The military is looking to both educate governors about their activities and get their input to help inform their approach to policy going forward."
With Romney just back from political trips this week to California and Michigan, Massachusetts Democrats criticized the governor for leaving the state again. During the 2004 presidential campaign, Romney called for US Senator John F. Kerry to resign rather than spend so much time campaigning for president at the expense of Massachusetts constituents.
''He's going to use every opportunity he can during his final months in office to make out-of-country trips to demonstrate that he has some background in foreign policy, even if it's illusory," said Philip Johnston, chairman of the Massachusetts Democratic Party. ''But the bottom line is, while they further his own political ambitions for 2008, it doesn't do anything to help the people of his state."
Visits by members of Congress have become a regular event at the base in recent years as part of Department of Defense efforts to build political support for the controversial prison, but the trips are rare for governors, military officials said yesterday. Since 2001, the US naval base in Cuba has housed about 500 prisoners accused of having terrorist ties to the Taliban or Al Qaeda, and activists have alleged that the United States is denying the detainees their legal rights.
On Wednesday, the government disclosed for the first time the names of all those being held at the prison, under a judge's order in connection with a Freedom of Information Act request by the Associated Press. And documents released last week revealed that Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld closely monitored the 2002 interrogation of a Guantanamo Bay detainee when the prisoner was being subjected to treatment deemed ''degrading and abusive" by a military investigator. Rumsfeld and Guantanamo commander Major General Geoffrey Miller had said they knew nothing about the interrogation tactics.
Troops on the base get advance warning that visitors are coming. They refer to such visits as ''Co-Dels" because they mostly are delegations from Congress.
Lieutenant Commander Chris Loundermon, a spokesman for the US Southern Command in Miami, which oversees Guantanamo, said he was not certain, but this was the first time he recalled a governor visiting the base.
Commander Robert Durand, a spokesman for the prison at Guantanamo, referred to the visit as a ''Gov-Del."
Loundermon said the purpose of the visits is to allow ''senior US leadership to go down and actually see the operation for themselves" so they can make an independent judgment about the prison.
Romney and Huckabee will spend a few hours on the base. The group will be escorted by Charles Stimson, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for detainee affairs, and several other Pentagon political liaison officers, a base spokesman said.
After landing and taking a ferry ride across the bay to the main part of the base, the delegation will receive a briefing about the operation and will meet with the prison's top commander, Rear Admiral Harry B. Harris Jr., a prison spokesman said.
The visitors will not be allowed to speak to any of the prisoners, but will be encouraged to have lunch with troops from their home states in a military cafeteria after viewing the living and recreation areas for the soldiers.
The governors also are scheduled to walk through an empty cellblock in the older part of Camp Delta, where they will be shown ''comfort items" given to prisoners as long as they behave.
In Massachusetts, political observers saw the trip as another step along a Romney's presidential campaign path.
''This is part of a presidential campaign move to advise the public that he's going to be familiar with issues," said Michael T. Corgan, a presidential historian at Boston University. ''Of course, foreign policy would be an area you might consider a weakness of his."
Corgan suggested that the visit poses few political dangers for Romney, who can speak from his firsthand experience later in a campaign and who need not make any major pronouncements about the prison at this stage.
''What he has to do at this point is not make a mistake, not say anything stupid," Corgan said. ''He has to appear interested and that he's not shying away from tough issues. But all he has to do is be there."