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With Guantanamo Set to Close, Questions Remain Over Where to Send Detainees

January 22, 2009 at 6:15 PM EDT
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President Obama signed an executive order Thursday to close the Guantanamo Bay prison camp for foreign terrorism suspects within a year. An NPR reporter discusses the plan and what may happen next to the facility's detainees.

RAY SUAREZ: For a look at the remaining inmates and how the Pentagon and Justice Department might go about implementing the president’s executive order, I’m joined by Jackie Northam, national security correspondent for National Public Radio.

And, Jackie, how many prisoners are still held at Guantanamo? And where are they from?

JACKIE NORTHAM, National Public Radio: The Pentagon actually never gives you a direct number as to how many are still there, but it’s roughly 250 prisoners remaining. Over 500 or roughly 500 have actually been released.

The ones that are still there now, they are mostly from Yemen. There’s a scattering, you know, from Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia and that type of thing, but really the bulk of the remaining detainees are from Yemen right now.

RAY SUAREZ: Did the president’s announcement today make it clear whether some subset of these remaining prisoners would be tried and how they would be and where they would be transported in the United States?

JACKIE NORTHAM: Well, those are all the big questions that are going to have to get thrashed out. At this point, everything is under review right now.

There are a group of prisoners — again, roughly about 60 — who have already been cleared for release. And the problem is, nobody — no countries have wanted to take them, whether it be their home country or perhaps a third country. Nobody’s stepped up to the plate.

And, in some cases, some of these detainees, the U.S. has been very reluctant and the Bush administration has been very reluctant to send them back to some of their home countries fearing that they might be persecuted or that.

Then you have about another 160 detainees, and these are the ones that — they’re probably going to try them, but how they go about that is the really big question. Under what legal system should they try them? Should it be, you know, under the military system, the military courts martial? Should it be using federal courts? If they did either of those, the systems would have to be tinkered with slightly.

The other option that keeps coming up more and more that you hear about is forming national security or terrorism courts, if you like. That would require legislation, which would take time.

At this point, though, it is not clear how they are going to prosecute the men or, for that matter, where they’re going to detain them. The president has given one year for this process to take place, and he said at that point, if they’re still at Guantanamo, they’re coming on to the mainland.

Problems of where to put prisoners

RAY SUAREZ: The interesting word that popped up in the order was "as soon as is practicable." What goes into it being practicable?

JACKIE NORTHAM: Well, again, essentially figuring out what they're going to do with the detainees, whether they can release them to these other countries or to figure out how they are going to try them.

The other big question, though, is, where are they going to hold them? Again, after a year, Guantanamo is out of the question. And I've talked to a lot of people from the Pentagon and from State Department and that where -- pardon me, from the Pentagon, where they've gone into the communities where it would be possible, in theory, to hold these people.

So I'm looking at military facilities here, such as Fort Leavenworth, Camp Pendleton in California, that type of thing, and civilian facilities, too, where they have prisons, where they could possibly hold them. I'm thinking Supermax in Colorado.

The officials that I've been dealing with at the Pentagon primarily have told me they've been met with huge opposition from those communities to bringing these people into those areas and holding them there. So they're going to have to figure out where they want to put these people when they bring them into the U.S.

And here's where President Obama might have to spend a little bit of political capital. You know, he might have to say, look it, I know you don't like it, but we have to put them somewhere, and this is where we've chosen.

Republican opposition

RAY SUAREZ: What kind of reaction has the president's proposal gotten from Republican legislators?

JACKIE NORTHAM: Well, House Republicans today are trying to push through legislation that says, no, you can't bring them onto American soil at this point. This is the first roadblock that's been thrown up thus far, and we're probably going to see a little bit more of that. About a year-and-a-half, it tried to go through the Senate, this same whole proposal, as well, and it was overwhelmingly turned down.

So, you know, all these years that I've been covering Guantanamo, you hear people say, "Close the camp. Let's bring them on to U.S. soil. Let's try them here." That's fine until it becomes, you know, in my backyard.

And now what we're seeing right now -- and we were getting indications of this earlier -- is we don't want them in our backyard.

Guantanamo trials suspended

RAY SUAREZ: The new Obama administration had asked that the trials that were already underway, under the most recent military commissions law, be suspended. What kind of response did they get from Guantanamo? Where do those things stand now?

JACKIE NORTHAM: Well, that was pretty much -- that was decided just hours after President Obama took office. And it was -- you're right, it was a suspension of these trials.

And what it effectively did was just froze two trials. One was a Canadian-born detainee, and the other one was a trial of five men accused of plotting the 9/11 attacks. Those were frozen.

Today with the executive order, what it essentially says is it draws a halt to the whole process of military commissions. These have been very troubled tribunals, where they were designed solely for the Guantanamo detainees and have been troubled right from the very start. There's been an enormous amount of criticism.

Whether those can be reconstituted, reworked into some fashion is still an open question. But, again, there's been so much opposition to those commissions that that's unlikely to happen.

At this moment, all those trials -- there's 21 pending trials -- they've just ground to a halt.

Interrogation policies to change

RAY SUAREZ: At the same time as the president made his order on Guantanamo, did he also speak to secret places where people may be held around the world?

JACKIE NORTHAM: Right. Well, this is coming up now, too, whether, in fact, they should close -- you're referring to the secret prisons run by the CIA, again, very contentious policy.

So this is going to have to -- it's still a little uncertain whether he now has closed those and can -- has the option of opening them again or reusing them again some time in the future.

The other executive order that came up, of course, today was this whole idea of just stopping any sort of harsh interrogations. And this was this waterboarding thing, where it feels like the prisoner, the detainee, is drowning. And other types of harsh interrogations, as well, these have completely ground to a halt.

So what he's done effectively is President Obama has taken some of the really most contentious policies that the Bush administration had put into place, how to deal with terrorist suspects, and he's started to unravel them. He's just started to say, no, let's just stop, at least let's pause and take a look at what we've got.

RAY SUAREZ: NPR's national security correspondent Jackie Northam, thanks for joining us.

JACKIE NORTHAM: My pleasure.