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Deciding the Future of Guantanamo


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Debbie Elliott.

The Bush administration appears to be engaged in a lively internal debate over what to do with the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. A White House spokeswoman said yesterday, a lot of very smart people are trying to figure out a way we could close Guantanamo. But she said the administration has set no deadline.

Into the debate now comes Stephen Abraham, a military lawyer who worked on Guantanamo detention cases. He has filed an affidavit questioning the fairness of the hearings used to determine who is detained at Guantanamo. We'll hear from him in a few moments.

But we begin with NPR's national security correspondent Jackie Northam. Jackie, what have you been hearing from the administration about Guantanamo's future?

JACKIE NORTHAM: We've been hearing an awful lot about negotiations over Guantanamo's future over the past few days. There was supposed to be a meeting on Friday amongst high-level White House officials, administration officials. That meeting was cancelled suddenly, and so there was this great speculation about what it all meant.

The White House spokesperson Dana Perino came out and said, everybody, don't get too worked up about it. These are regular type of meetings that we have to sit down and to discuss this, but no decision about the future of Guantanamo is imminent. But what's apparent and what is interesting is that there's finally seems to be lively discussion about this lively debate.

ELLIOTT: How is that debate playing out? Who's - who thinks it should be closed? Who thinks it should remain open?

NORTHAM: Well, what's happened actually is the whole balance of power has shifted. The whole playing field has changed. On one side you have Robert Gates, the secretary of defense who has made it very clear that he wants this place closed. You know, he understands that it is the blight on - of America's image overseas. People hate this place overseas.

He nixed the whole idea to spend a hundred million dollars to built up all new facilities to hold these military trials down there. You have Condoleezza Rice, secretary of state, who's also made it very clear she doesn't like it.

On the other side, you still have Vice President Dick Cheney who is a proponent of keeping this place open. But people that were in that camp have now left or are incredibly weakened. Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld is out. He's undersecretary for intelligence. Stephen Campbell, another big advocate for this place, has also left. And Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has been weakened over the scandal of the firing of the U.S. attorneys.

ELLIOTT: Where does the president come down?

NORTHAM: The president has said for the past couple of years that he does want this place closed, but otherwise it's a hands-off policy. He is leaving it to his cabinet to decide these things.

ELLIOTT: Given the change in the balance of power in the administration debate over this, is there a better chance that Guantanamo will be closed in the near future?

NORTHAM: Not without certain problems. I mean, if you look at just logistics of trying to close this place down, there are enormous challenges. First of all, there are about 385 detainees. Where are you going to put them? What are you going to do with them? They've been trying to get rid of 80 of those detainees, and they can't. Their home countries won't take them back or other countries aren't willing to take back men of - who have been called the worst of the worst for the past five years.

There is a thought that they could move the men on to American soil, put them into military brigs here, but that seems to have its own problems, too. And it's not really clear that there's an appetite amongst Congress for that to happen.

ELLIOTT: What would happen if the detainees were brought here? Wouldn't that change their legal status?

NORTHAM: It would make fundamental changes to their legal status, presumably yes. And the big one, the key one, would be whether they would have more legal rights to actually challenge their detentions, which is something that's not allowed to happen while they're at Guantanamo.

The other thing, too, is if they do bring them back on to American soil and they do try to put them on trial, there are real problems with evidence. I've talked to many, many military lawyers about this. And just the type of evidence would not stand up in a civilian courts - things like hearsays, things like (unintelligible) evidence, and also this big question of torture as well. So there would be problems with trying to bring a lot of these cases to court.

ELLIOTT: NPR's Jackie Northam. Thank you.

NORTHAM: Thank you, Debbie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.
Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.