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Lacking Clear Solution, Obama Struggles to Close Gitmo

August 4, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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With less than six months until President Obama's deadline for closing the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, the White House is struggling to decide on a bevy of options. Ari Shapiro of National Public Radio speaks with Judy Woodruff about the various options under review.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: There is less than six months left until President Obama’s self-imposed deadline for closing Guantanamo, but more than 200 men remain in detention. New details emerge almost daily about plans for the prisoners, including transfer to the U.S. mainland, return to their home countries, or relocation to a third country.

Here to walk us through all the options on the table is Ari Shapiro. He’s been covering Guantanamo for National Public Radio.

Ari, thank you for being back with us again…

ARI SHAPIRO, National Public Radio: Thank you for having me.

JUDY WOODRUFF: … on this subject. So with all the stories floating around out there, what’s for real? What do we make of all this?

ARI SHAPIRO: Well, what’s for real is that the administration is considering several different options and probably will end up using a combination of things.

For example, over the weekend, we heard that the administration was thinking about opening a prison courthouse complex either in Kansas or in Michigan. So I called an administration official and I said, “Is this real?” And they said, “Well, it’s really something we’re considering.”

And I said, “Well, is it one of three options or one of 300 options?” And they said, “It’s something we’re considering.”

So I think the administration itself doesn’t know yet exactly what’s going to happen with all of these people. There’s a detention task force that has been working for six months on trying to get these answers. A couple weeks ago, they asked for another six-month extension.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, does this intriguing idea of a combination courtroom and prison facility, do they tell you enough to understand how it would work?

Combination Courtroom and Prison

ARI SHAPIRO: Well, the premise is that there will be some Guantanamo detainees who face civilian military trials of the sort that we're used to. There will be another group of detainees that faces some sort of reconstituted military war crimes trials.

And then there's going to be what the administration describes as the most difficult group of detainees, some of the most dangerous ones, who can be locked up perhaps indefinitely, but the administration wants them to have regular judicial review to make sure that we don't have an 89-year-old tottering terrorist wandering around the prison who's no longer a danger.

So that's, I think, where this concept of the courtroom prison comes in, that you could have people who get regular judicial review, but who may be held for a very long time.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you get the solution, Ari, there's one facility, one answer that they have in mind for this or...

ARI SHAPIRO: Absolutely not. In fact, there are already several different U.S. attorney's offices around the country that have had Guantanamo detainee cases referred to them for possible prosecution.

It tends to be the offices that have handled terrorism cases the most in the past, so we're talking about the eastern district of Virginia. That's Alexandria just outside of D.C. They tried Zacarias Moussaoui.

We're looking at the southern district of New York. That's Manhattan, where one Guantanamo detainee, Ahmed Ghailani, has already been transferred for trial. He's accused of the first World Trade -- sorry, the embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania.

And then the U.S. attorney's office in Washington, D.C., is another that has had some cases referred for possible prosecution.

So we're really looking at kind of a mixed approach, where different detainees are going to go to different places, depending on what the individual case demands.

Not In My Backyard

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what about progress in finding countries, either home countries that would be willing to accept the detainees back or third countries that would be willing to take them in?

ARI SHAPIRO: Well, 11 detainees have already been transferred to other countries since the Obama administration took office. I think, when this process started, a lot of people assumed that foreign countries might be willing to take detainees if the U.S. first agreed to take some detainees who were released.

Well, the U.S. has made very clear that senators and congressmen are not interested in having Guantanamo detainees released. There's a whole "not in my backyard" attitude.

And yet European countries and some Middle Eastern and other countries have on the whole, I think, been more positive than many people expected about taking Guantanamo detainees.

There are more than 50 detainees who have already been cleared for transfer to third countries at Guantanamo, and the State Department is working really hard right now to find specific countries who will take them. And there are probably going to be more than that, as those detention task force works through these 229 men who are still at the prison camp.

But so far administration officials that I talked to seem to be feeling good that they will find countries to take these men.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So what about this deadline that President Obama himself...

ARI SHAPIRO: Yes, the January deadline.

JUDY WOODRUFF: ... set. Does it look like they can meet this? What are they -- what are they saying to you about that?

On Track for January Deadline

ARI SHAPIRO: There are certainly a lot of skeptics, but a lot of people who I talk with in the administration think they can make it. There is this detention task force that they say they've reviewed more than half of the detainees who are at Guantanamo right now, and they expect to be done reviewing the detainees' cases by October 1st.

They still need to get, as I said, buy-in from some foreign countries about transferring Guantanamo detainees elsewhere. There is also some pressure for Congress to pass a law that would amend the military commissions, the war crimes trials that I mentioned earlier, because right now there's a system of war crimes trials that the Bush administration created that the Obama administration is not really happy with.

So there are issues that need to be sorted out. There's a long list of issues, and it's not going to be easy. People in the administration who I talk to, though, seem optimistic that they could still make January.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, in that answer, you make it sound fairly orderly, and yet the impression that many of us have is that this has just been all over the map. What's...

Qualms About Detainees in U.S.

ARI SHAPIRO: Well, as you know, Congress is never exactly orderly. And I think one big challenge here has been Congress, that the Obama administration really didn't anticipate the enormous amount of pushback. One person said to me, the attitude on Guantanamo has turned 180 degrees from a year ago.

During the presidential campaign, John McCain and Barack Obama both supported closing Guantanamo, and yet now that poll numbers show that the majority of Americans have serious qualms about bringing Guantanamo detainees to the United States, I think Republicans in Congress see an opportunity to score some points politically, to make their constituents' concerns known, and I think they're trying to use this to keep the administration on the defensive.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Except for maybe that one spot in Michigan where they're looking at a joint facility.

ARI SHAPIRO: Right. And interestingly, in Michigan, you've got Senator Carl Levin, the chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, who does not appear to be opposed to Guantanamo detainees possibly coming to his state. So that's one place to keep an eye on.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we'll be keeping an eye on this, and we appreciate your help.

ARI SHAPIRO: Thanks a lot.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ari Shapiro, National Public Radio, thank you.

ARI SHAPIRO: Good to talk to you.