Devils And Details: Obama's Guantanamo Plan

This week President Obama presented his most detailed plan yet for handling the detainees at Guantanamo. There are about 240 men being held at the prison camp now, and Obama has set a deadline to close the base by next January. He says the detainees will fall into one of five categories, but each of those groups has its own challenges. NPR's Ari Shapiro tells host Scott Simon about the various considerations.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

We're joined now by NPR's Ari Shapiro, who's going to talk about the five different categories they've established for detainees who are being held at Guantanamo. Ari, thanks very much for being with us.

ARI SHAPIRO: Good to be with you, Scott.

SIMON: And first category, as I understand it, are those who would be sent to foreign countries. What's the major concern there?

SHAPIRO: Well, there have already been a couple of these. One detainee was released to France, one released to the U.K. under the Obama administration. Eric Holder, the attorney general, took a trip to Europe a few weeks ago, where he basically encouraged foreign countries to take detainees. One concern, of course, is not releasing detainees to countries that might torture them. But a lot of the leaders the attorney general spoke with said, you know, we would happily consider taking detainees if you'll take some first, and that of course leads into the second category and those challenges of detainees who might come to the United States.

SIMON: And of course there's been a lot of concern about that, with essentially a lot of people in Congress saying, yes, by all means close Guantanamo, but not if you're going to bring them here.

SHAPIRO: Right. Not in my backyard has been the refrain on Capitol Hill. And this is a big challenge for the Obama administration, finding some member of Congress, any member of Congress, who will agree to let detainees into their neighborhood. Now, President Obama has said again and again he will not release anyone into the U.S. who could pose a threat. He made a point this week that a judge ordered 18 Uighurs, Muslim separatists from China, released, and he said that was the judge's decision and it took place during the Bush administration, so he said this is something we inherited. That still doesn't make members of Congress any more eager to take these people.

SIMON: And what about trials for Guantanamo detainees?

SHAPIRO: Well, some people will be tried in criminal courts. We heard about the first one of those this week. His name is Ahmed Ghailani, and he's probably the easiest Guantanamo detainee to try because he's accused of embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. So even though Ghailani has been in Guantanamo for the last couple of years, he was accused of stuff pre-9/11, and so he doesn't run into all of those pesky problems of torture and things like that, that might come up in some of the other Guantanamo cases.

SIMON: President Obama did encounter some displeasure from Human Rights groups and the American Civil Liberties Union when he said that he wanted to revive military commissions.

SHAPIRO: Right. His critics accuse him off flip-flopping on this issue. During the campaign he lambasted President Bush's military commissions, and now that he has revived military commissions, he says, well, it's not the idea of military commissions that is flawed. He says the commissions as designed by President Bush were flawed. So he says we're going to give the detainees more rights, we're going to give the defendants more freedoms. But groups like the ACLU say military commissions are still fundamentally flawed and there's no way to fix this broken-down system of trials. Nevertheless, the Obama administration plans to move forward and try some detainees accused of war crimes in these refined, new-and-improved sorts of military commissions.

SIMON: Final group, of course, detainees that have been described as the toughest, those who can't be tried and at the same time can't be released.

SHAPIRO: Right.

SIMON: President Obama said this was the toughest group. And well, let me get you to finish that sentence.

SHAPIRO: Well, tune in for the next couple of months in Washington because we're going to be hearing a lot about a proposal for some kind of prolonged, preventive, indefinite detention. And what that means, basically, is locking people up and holding them, perhaps for a very long time, without trial. There are conversations in the administration on Capitol Hill.

SIMON: That's either illegal or certainly not a change in policy.

SHAPIRO: Well, the problem is right now there have been de facto programs to hold people indefinitely without trial. For example, at Guantanamo people have been held and the federal court here in Washington, D.C. has heard the petitions of these detainees one after another, but it's not really designed to support this kind of system. And so the Obama administration is saying we need to create a system that has buy-in from Congress, that has judicial oversight, that has periodic review, that has clear checks and balances, so that we can hold dangerous terrorists who we cannot try or release, but it's not just some de facto ad hoc system.

Now, you've got groups like the ACLU, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, who say holding people for crimes they've not yet committed is fundamentally antithetical to what America stands for. And so I think in the next few months you're going to see a big, big fight in Washington, not only over those first four groups we talked about - those who will be released, those who will be tried - but I think more than anyone else over this fifth group, those who have to be locked up some other way.

SIMON: Is some of this the difference between what you say when you're running for office and what you say when you actually have to decide whether to release someone from prison?

SHAPIRO: You know, there were several columnists this week - Charles Krauthammer, David Brooks, Jack Goldsmith - writing in various publications that the Obama plan on national security actually seems to be very close to what we saw towards the end of the Bush administration. The real difference here is not the difference between Bush and Obama, it's the difference between the post-9/11 Bush and the more recent President Bush, and that what President Obama is doing is just sort of tinkering around the edges of those programs.

SIMON: NPR's Ari Shapiro, thanks so much.

SHAPIRO: You're welcome.

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