By David Morgan
WASHINGTON, May 9 (Reuters) - The Pentagon on Wednesday urged Congress to avoid an early closing of the U.S. military prison in Cuba, despite widespread recognition that the infamous jail has eroded U.S. standing in the world.
Defense officials told the U.S. House of Representatives that it could take about three years to try 60 to 80 Guantanamo Bay inmates identified as terror suspects who could be successfully prosecuted on war crimes charges before military tribunals.
Others from among a current prison population of 385 inmates would also require years to gain release or be transferred into the custody of their home countries.
Although President George W. Bush and Defense Secretary Robert Gates have both expressed a desire to close the prison, officials appearing before a House Appropriations subcommittee suggested closure would be a long-term project with a range of nettlesome legal and security issues to be resolved.
"Neither the president nor the secretary has said we’re going to close it tomorrow," said Joseph Benkert, principal deputy assistant defense secretary for global security affairs.
"There are no readily available facilities to take these guys," he added, stressing that the administration has no timeline or proposal for shutting the jail.
The prison at the U.S. naval station at Guantanamo, which has housed about 775 terrorism suspects since it opened in early 2002, has been condemned worldwide as an affront to human rights because most inmates are held without charge.
"This has been completely tainted worldwide," said Rep. John Murtha, the Pennsylvania Democrat who chaired the panel.
Benkert and other officials including Guantanamo prison commander, Navy Rear Adm. Harry Harris, spoke as two House Democrats separately introduced a bill calling for the prison to be closed within a year.
Defense officials sought to bolster the prison’s image, saying 95 percent of detainees are connected to al Qaeda, the Taliban or their associates and more than 70 percent have had a role in attacks on U.S. or coalition forces.
"Our critics would say that those we’re holding are farmers, cooks or other types of noncombatants. I think if you look at the classified records, they tell a different story," Benkert said.
They warned that early closure could threaten security, saying 30 of about 390 Guantanamo detainees already released or transferred have rejoined Islamist militant comrades fighting against U.S. interests.
Democrats were skeptical that detainees could not easily be tried on U.S. soil or that inmates, the bulk of whom have been held for years, remain a source of vital intelligence.
Murtha openly ridiculed an assertion by Daniel Dell’Orto, the Pentagon’s principal deputy general counsel, that closing the Guantanamo Bay jail would "cripple" the U.S. intelligence effort against terrorism.
"This is beyond my belief," Murtha said.