(CNSNews.com) - A Department of Defense official on Wednesday called the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, vital to strategic intelligence collection and defended the Pentagon's decision not to allow United Nations representatives access to detainees.
The United Nations on Feb. 15 released a study critical of the Guantanamo Bay facility, alleging that detainees have been abused. The authors of the report have come under fire for not visiting the military base while conducting their research.
The U.N. rapporteurs (the French word for a person designated to give a report) have said they declined the Pentagon's invitation to tour the facility because they would not have been granted access to interview detainees, a standard procedure for U.N. human rights investigators.
"Human rights rapporteurs do not have a legal right to have access," said Brian Del Monte, deputy director of the Office of Detainee Policy, at a Wednesday event sponsored by the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C. He said the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is the only outside organization with the authority to meet with detainees.
The Geneva Conventions mandate that the ICRC must have access to visitors, according to the Red Cross website. Defense Department spokesman J.D. Gordon said ICRC officials have visited Guantanamo Bay every three months for about a week at a time and have had private, confidential meetings with detainees.
Jennifer Daskal, an advocacy director for Human Rights Watch who participated in the panel discussion with Del Monte, questioned why U.N. investigators were not allowed to meet with detainees. "If there's nothing to hide," she asked, "then why weren't the U.N. rapporteurs granted access?"
Del Monte replied that the Defense Department takes "the principled stance that the mandate of the Red Cross is important and that mandate should not be diluted."
"It's not that we believe they have some nefarious aim," he said of the U.N. "It's not that we're afraid of what the detainees might say."
Daskal also criticized the Defense Department for holding detainees she described as "low level" and "cannon fodder." She said information released by the Pentagon implies that many detainees are unimportant and unable to provide good information to intelligence gatherers.
Daskal was referring to a Feb. 4 report in the National Journal that examined government files on 132 detainees. It concluded that, "most of the 'enemy combatants' held at Guantanamo - for four years now - are simply not the worst of the worst of the terrorist world."
Del Monte said the National Journal report was based on a "small sample of the evidence" and that "the information that is made public is not all of the information." He said the interrogation of detainees has produced information on terrorist recruiting efforts and combat strategies.
"It is in their training -- the detainees -- to lie," Del Monte said, suggesting that the suspects would play down their connection with the Taliban or al Qaeda in order to be released.
Retired Sgt. Maj. Steve Short, who was stationed at Guantanamo Bay for 53 weeks and briefly served as the superintendent of Camp Delta, agreed that detainees are not held any longer than necessary.
"The last thing we wanted to do was have more people to take care of," Short said. In his time at Camp Delta, Short said he "never once observed an inappropriate act" by a U.S. service member against a detainee.
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