GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba - The chief of the US military yesterday said he favors closing the prison here as soon as possible because he believes negative publicity worldwide about treatment of terrorist suspects has been "pretty damaging" to the image of the United States.
"I'd like to see it shut down," Admiral Mike Mullen said in an interview with three reporters who toured the detention center with him on his first visit since becoming chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff last October.
His visit occurred two days after the sixth anniversary of the opening of the prison. He stressed that a closure decision was not his to make and that he understands there are numerous complex legal questions the administration believes would have to be settled first, such as where to move prisoners.
The admiral also noted that some of Guantanamo Bay's prisoners are deemed high-security threats. During a tour of Camp Six, which is a high-security facility holding about 100 prisoners, Mullen got a firsthand look at some of the cells; one prisoner glared at Mullen through a narrow cell window as US officers explained to the Joint Chiefs chairman how they maintain almost-constant watch over each prisoner.
Mullen, whose previous visit was in December 2005 as head of the Navy, noted that President Bush and Defense Secretary Robert Gates have spoken publicly in favor of closing the prison. But Mullen said he is unaware of any active discussion in the administration about how to do it.
"I'm not aware that there is any immediate consideration to closing Guantanamo Bay," Mullen said.
Asked why he thinks Guantanamo Bay, commonly dubbed Gitmo, should be closed and the prisoners perhaps moved to US soil, Mullen said, "More than anything else it's been the image - how Gitmo has become around the world, in terms of representing the United States."
Critics have charged that detainees have been mistreated in some cases and that the legal conditions of their detentions are not consistent with the rule of law.
"I believe that from the standpoint of how it reflects on us that it's been pretty damaging," Mullen said, speaking in a small boat that ferried him to and from the detention facilities across a glistening bay.
He said he was encouraged to hear from US officers here that the prison population has shrunk by about 100 over the past year, to 277. At one time the population exceeded 600.
Hundreds have been returned to their home countries but US officials say some are such serious security threats that they cannot be released for the foreseeable future.
Only four are currently facing military trials after being formally charged with crimes.