In an interview broadcast Friday on NBC's "Today" show, Gates called the facility on the island of Cuba "probably one of the finest prisons in the world today." But at the same time, he said it had become "a taint" on the reputation of America.
Gates has served both President George W. Bush and now Barack Obama at the Pentagon. In an interview taped Thursday aboard the retired World War II-era battleship USS Intrepid, the defense secretary said that once the decision was made to close Guantanamo, "the question is, where do you put them?" He said Mr. Obama would do nothing to endanger the public and said there has never been an escape from a "super-max" prison in this country.
Of criticism the president's plan would jeopardize people's safety, Gates said: "I think that one of the points ... was that he had no interest whatsoever in releasing publicly detainees who might come back to harm Americans."
Gates said that "we have many terrorists in United States' prisons today," and he decried "fear-mongering about this."
The Gates interview was broadcast a day after Mr. Obama and former Vice President Dick Cheney, in speeches that occurred almost simultaneously, escalated the public argument over the new administration's anti-terrorism policy and claims by Republicans that it has put the nation at risk.
As CBS News White House correspondent Mark Knoller writes of Mr. Obama and Cheney: "They laid out the stark differences in their approaches to the interrogations of terrorists and the treatment and trial of detainees at Guantanamo Bay. They both renewed their commitments to keeping America safe, but made it clear they thought the other's strategy would have the opposite effect."
"The argument was settled at the polls last November 4.," Knoller writes.
Mr. Obama campaigned against keeping Guantanamo open when he ran for president, and he also said he was opposed to aggressive interrogation tactics that opponents call torture. When he took office, he signed orders providing for the closure of Guantanamo by January 2010 and he also prohibited extreme interrogation practices, such as "waterboarding," in the country's anti-terrorism strategy.
On Thursday, Mr. Obama went to the National Archives, repository of treasured national documents as the Declaration of Independence, Bill of Rights and Constitution, andto close Guantanamo despite resistance from both Democrats and Republicans in Congress. He also said that some of the terror suspects held there would be brought to top-security prisons in the United States.
"There are no neat or easy answers here,"in which he pledged anew to clean up what he said was "quite simply a mess" at Guantanamo that he had inherited from the Bush administration.
Moments after Mr. Obama concluded, Cheney vehemently defended the counterterrorism policies of the Bush administration. He expressed no regrets about actions the Bush White House ordered. And Cheney said that under the same circumstances he would make the same decisions "without hesitation."