WASHINGTON (AP) — Senior defense officials said Tuesday that it was "outrageous" that female guards at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, are barred from transporting five detainees suspected of being involved in the Sept. 11 attacks.
A military judge issued an order in January prohibiting female guards from transporting the defendants, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, after they refused to meet with defense lawyers and complained that any physical contact with unrelated women violated their Muslim beliefs.
The ruling by Army Col. James Pohl was meant to deal with their complaints, which posed a threat to legal proceedings.
Questioned on the ruling at a congressional hearing, both Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford Jr., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Defense Secretary Ash Carter said it was an outrage.
"I think it is counter to the way we treat service members, including women service members, and outrage is a very good word for it," Carter told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Dunford said "It is outrageous. It ought to be fixed. It hasn't been to date."
Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., who traveled to Guantanamo on Friday with Sens. Tim Scott, R-S.C., and Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., pressed Dunford and Carter on the issue.
President Barack Obama has tried repeatedly to close the prison since he took office in January 2009, but he has met strong resistance from Republicans and some Democrats in Congress who argue that Guantanamo is the only viable option, especially for terror detainees deemed too dangerous to release or transfer to third countries.
At a news conference, Ayotte, Scott and Capito insisted that Guantanamo should remain open. Ayotte also called on the administration to speak out on the guard issue, saying "terrorists should not dictate what men and women can do when serving in the military."
A Defense Department team is scheduled to visit facilities to hold the terror suspects in the United States, including the Colorado State Penitentiary in Canon City and the so-called Supermax federal prison in Florence, Colorado. The Pentagon team also has surveyed the Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and the Naval Consolidated Brig in Charleston, South Carolina.
There are 114 detainees currently at Guantanamo, and 53 are eligible for transfer.
The Republican lawmakers rejected the idea of moving the terror suspects to U.S. facilities.
"It is the only place, the best place, the right place to house the remaining 114" detainees, Capito told reporters.
At the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., pushed Dunford and Carter on why Obama had not yet provided a plan to close Guantanamo.
Carter said it has taken time to survey alternate detention sites.
"Some of those are Department of Defense sites. Some of those are Bureau of Prisons sites," Carter said. "And we needed to have them nominated by the Justice Department and then, to do the site surveys there, all of that took some time. That process is now complete, and I expect you'll get your proposal shortly."
This year's defense policy bill includes provisions that would make it harder for Obama to transfer suspected terror detainees out of Guantanamo and would prevent them from being transferred to U.S. soil. Obama, who was upset about those restrictive provisions, has vetoed the bill over a larger government spending fight with the GOP-led Congress.