WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Already struggling to improve its image abroad, the United States went into damage control mode on Monday after a senior State Department official called three suicides in Guantanamo Bay a "great PR move."
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack distanced the department from the remark made on Sunday by deputy assistant secretary of state for public diplomacy Colleen Graffy.
"I would just point out in public that we do not see it (the suicides) as a PR stunt," McCormack told reporters.
He said the United States was seriously concerned about the deaths of the two Saudis and a Yemeni, who hanged themselves in the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba where the United States has held foreign security detainees since January 2002.
Professor Shibley Telhami of the Brookings Institution, said whatever damage control State Department tried to do would not overcome negative views, particularly in the Arab world.
There was so much mistrust that some Arab media were questioning whether the deaths were suicides at all. "At this point, public diplomacy simply cannot overcome the prevailing perceptions in the region toward the U.S.," Telhami said.
Graffy's comment irked State Department image crafters who fear it could further erode America's image among allies already critical of U.S. human rights practices after the Abu Ghraib prison scandal when U.S. personnel abused inmates.
Graffy is a deputy of special envoy Karen Hughes, a close confidant of President George W. Bush, who heads a campaign to improve the U.S. image abroad, especially in Islamic countries. Her comment was seen as a setback in those efforts.
State Department's image gurus also viewed a remark by Guantanamo prison commander, Rear Admiral Harry Harris, describing the suicides as acts of "asymmetrical warfare," as a blunder.
Several State Department officials, all of whom declined to be named because the issue was so sensitive, said Graffy had chosen her words poorly and noted that Harris's comments were not repeated by other Bush administration officials.
McCormack said he would not try to dissect the motives of the prisoners who killed themselves.
"In terms of the situation surrounding this incident, that will be fully investigated," he said.
The United States had assured the Saudi and Yemeni governments as well as other nations the remains of the prisoners would be treated with respect.
The suicides, the first known deaths at Guantanamo Bay, have fueled calls abroad and at home for the offshore U.S. prison to be closed.
McCormack said Guantanamo Bay housed "dangerous citizens" who were a threat to the world.
Middle East expert Jon Alterman said pressure was mounting both at home and abroad for Guantanamo to close.
"Guantanamo is an open wound for much of the world and there are very deep concerns about what happens there and that it exists at all," said Alterman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington thinktank.