The president's senior national security and legal advisers had been expected to discuss the move at the White House on Friday and it appeared a consensus was developing for the first time among his inner circle, three senior administration officials said on Thursday.

 

After news of it broke, however, the White House said the meeting would not take place on Friday.

 

New proposal

 

The prison has drawn protests
from rights groups [AFP]
The meeting would have considered a new proposal to shut the centre and transfer detainees to one or more US defence department facilities, including the maximum security military prison at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas, where they could face trial, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

 

They said the vice-president, the secretaries of state and defence, the attorney-general, homeland security chief, national intelligence director and the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff had been expected to attend the meeting.

 

Previous plans to close the Guantanamo prison were met with fierce resistance from Dick Cheney, the vice-president, Alberto Gonzales, the attorney-general, and former defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

 

But officials said the new suggestion is gaining momentum with at least tacit support from the state and homeland security departments, the Pentagon, and the US intelligence directorate.

 

Cheney's office and the justice department have been firmly opposed to the step, arguing that moving "unlawful" enemy combatant suspects to the United States would give them undeserved legal rights.

 

Pressure building

 

They could still block the proposal, but pressure to close Guantanamo has been building since a Supreme Court decision last year that found a previous system for prosecuting enemy combatants illegal and recent rulings by military judges that threw out charges against two terror suspects under a new tribunal scheme.

 

Those decisions have dealt a blow to the administration's efforts to begin prosecuting dozens of Guantanamo detainees regarded as the nation's most dangerous terror suspects.

 

Congressional Democrats, now in the majority, and some Republicans also have taken up the cause.

 

Several recently introduced pieces of proposed legislation that would require Guantanamo's closure and one that would designate Fort Leavenworth as the new detention facility.

 

About 405 detainees have been released
but about 375 remain at Guantanamo
Another bill would grant new rights to those held at Guantanamo Bay, including access to lawyers regardless of whether the prisoners were put on trial.

 

Yet another would allow detainees to protest their detentions in federal court, a right they now are denied.

 

"The push has reached a high point," said one official. "Something has to be done, and we want it done quickly."

 

The Guantanamo prison, where about 375 inmates remain, has been a flash point for criticism of the Bush administration at home and abroad.

 

It was set up in 2002 to house terror suspects captured in military operations, mostly in Afghanistan.

 

Because the facility is on Cuban soil – the base is "rented" in perpetuity by the United States under a 1903 deal – the administration has argued that detainees there are not covered by rights and protections afforded to those in US prisons.

 

Human rights advocates and foreign leaders have urged repeatedly that the US close the jail.