Oregon's senior U.S. senator, Ron Wyden, returned from his recent visit to Guantánamo Bay recommending the U.S. detention center in Cuba stay open.

That stance differs sharply from some Democratic colleagues in Congress like Delaware Sen. Joe Biden, who says the U.S. should eventually shut down the prison housing suspected terrorists down because it has morphed into a propaganda tool for terrorist recruiters.

Wyden's recommendation also runs contrary to Amnesty International (which labeled Guantánamo "the gulag of our times'') and other critics who believe indefinite detention of prisoners without legal charges violates both U.S. and international law.

But Wyden rejects any analysis that he's fallen in with the Bush administration's apologists. He said after his seven-hour visit June 26 that critics aren't focused on how conditions have improved for the 500-plus terrorism suspects.

"Most of the reports that have been put out dealt with problems that were early on,'' says Wyden, who spent three days in Cuba on congressional business that included a pitch to sell more Oregon cherries and pears.

Wyden says the alternatives to imprisonment at Guantánamo are much worse.

One of those options-"rendition,'' or outsourcing the detainees to countries like Egypt or Pakistan-would expose those suspects to torture in countries with less commitment to human rights, Wyden says.

And closing the prison down isn't a choice, he says, because the United States can't "just turn anybody loose who we believe is going to kill more Americans.''

His solution: have stronger congressional oversight to clarify the prisoners' legal status and better define how they should be treated by guards and interrogators.

Wyden, a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, acknowledges it's naive to believe prison officials didn't know he and Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., were touring. Yet Wyden says they weren't duped by a Potemkin village when they witnessed interrogations and talked with prison personnel.

"There's no way that could be a valid examination of what it's like for those prisoners,'' counters Samer Rabadi, deputy director for Amnesty International's western regional office in Los Angeles. "Right now, Guantánamo is basically the prism through which the rest of the world sees the rest of the United States.''