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US asks to hold Gitmo detainees to avoid bad press

WASHINGTON — As the U.S. was accused of human rights abuses, a State Department official advised the military to delay sending Guantanamo Bay prisoners home in order to avoid more bad publicity.

"We need to definitely think about checking ... to see if we can hold off on return flights for 45 days or so until things die down," according to the 2006 e-mail. "Otherwise we are likely to have hero's welcomes awaiting the detainees when they arrive."

The e-mail was in one in a series released Thursday by Amnesty International USA, the Center for Constitutional Rights and the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice.

The name of the official who sent the message was blacked out.

The e-mail also suggested delivering detainees to their countries in "smaller and more discreet" airplanes.

"U.S Getting Creamed on Human Rights ... Taking a big hit," in world press reports, said a separate message. The e-mails were written the day after a U.N. report concluded the prison in Cuba should be closed and that some treatment of suspected terrorists held there amounted to torture.

The e-mail asking about delaying flights was sent Feb. 17, 2006, by a State Department official to the head of the U.S. Transportation Command, Gen. Norton Schwartz, who is now the Air Force chief of staff.

Eleven minutes later, Schwartz responded simply: "Got it ... Thank you."

No new flights were made transferring prisoners from Guantanamo for the following three months, Pentagon records show.

It was unclear whether that was the result of the Feb. 17 memo or whether the flights were intentionally delayed to save face.

"Proposing to hold men for a month and a half after they were deemed releasable is inexcusable," said CCR lawyer Gitanjali Gutierrez, who represents a number of men held in Guantanamo.

The e-mail was "part of an internal communications process to safely transfer detainees overseas, and did not reflect a statement of Defense Department policy," Navy Cmdr. J.D. Gordon, a Pentagon spokesman, said Thursday.

Officials also noted that Schwartz did not have the authority to decide when flights would be sent.