WASHINGTON - Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said the Obama administration had no choice but to order the shutdown of the prison at Guantanamo because "the name itself is a condemnation" of U.S. antiterrorism strategy.

In an interview broadcast yesterday on NBC's Today show, Gates called the facility on the island of Cuba "probably one of the finest prisons in the world today." At the same time, he said it had become "a taint" on America's reputation.

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 aircraft carrier USS Intrepid, the defense secretary said that once the decision was made to close Guantanamo, "the question is, where do you put them [the inmates]?"

He said Obama would do nothing to endanger the public and said there had never been an escape from a U.S. "supermax" prison.

Of criticism that 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 Obama and former Vice President Dick Cheney, in speeches in quick succession, escalated the public argument over the new administration's antiterrorism policy and assertions by Republicans that it has put the nation at risk.

Obama campaigned for shutting Guantanamo 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 antiterrorism strategy.

On Thursday, Obama went to the National Archives, repository of treasured national documents such as the Declaration of Independence, Bill of Rights, and Constitution, and forcefully defended his decision to close Guantanamo despite resistance in Congress. He said 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," Obama said, pledging to clean up what he said was "quite simply a mess" he inherited from the Bush administration.

Cheney vehemently defended the counterterrorism policies of the Bush administration. He expressed no regrets about actions the Bush White House ordered.

Pelosi Says She's Said Enough on CIA

Seeking to douse a controversy sparked by her own remarks, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi yesterday refused to answer more questions about her assertion earlier this month that

the CIA had "lied" to her during a 2002 briefing about the use of waterboarding on terrorism suspects.

"I have made the statement that I'm going to make on this," Pelosi (D., Calif.) said yesterday at a televised news conference from Washington. "I don't have anything more to say about it. I stand by my comment."

Speaking as top Democrats looked on in support, she added: "What we are doing is staying on our course and not being distracted from it." She said she wanted to focus on issues such as energy and health care that Congress is expected

to take up after it returns from the Memorial Day break.

Pelosi, who was the ranking Democrat on the intelligence committee when she was briefed, insisted she was not told that waterboarding had been used, although it already had been employed on some suspects. She said she learned of its use after leaving the committee.

Republicans seized on the remarks, trying to turn Pelosi into a target by questioning her veracity. Part of the reason is that Pelosi is a visible political foe who can be used in fund- raising appeals and other activities to rebuild the GOP, which has little direct clout in Congress after the last election.

- Los Angeles Times