Panel Seeks More Time For Detainee Policy Review
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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
The Obama administration is pushing back its own deadline for two new policies on the detention and interrogation of terrorism suspects. Two task forces were supposed to report today. Both say they need more time. The administration says it is still on track to close the Guantanamo prison by January. NPR's Ari Shapiro has been covering that story. He joins us now.
Good morning, Ari.
ARI SHAPIRO: Good morning, Linda.
WERTHEIMER: Explain where these task forces came from, and what they're supposed to do.
SHAPIRO: Well, President Obama's first week in office, he created three task forces. One was supposed to evaluate all the detainees at Guantanamo, either for prosecution or transfer to foreign countries. That's with the goal of, as you said, closing the base by January.
And then the other two task forces were looking more broadly at interrogation policy and detention policy for current and future detainees - not only in Guantanamo but Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, Iraq, and anywhere else in the country that we might detain terrorism suspects. And as you mentioned, those two task forces were supposed to finish their work by today.
WERTHEIMER: So when will they finish?
SHAPIRO: Well, the executive order that created these task forces allowed the teams to ask for an extension. We were told yesterday that the detention task force asked for a six-month extension. The interrogation task force asked for another two months to do their work. And they were both granted the extensions.
WERTHEIMER: Ari, do we have any idea where they are, how much progress has been made so far?
SHAPIRO: We have some idea. The detention task force released an interim report yesterday that focused mainly on military commissions. These are the war crimes trials that some detainees might face instead of civilian criminal trials. This interim report went into some detail about how Justice Department lawyers will decide whether to send people to military commissions or civilian courts.
Some human rights groups object to the military commissions, but legislation that would change the Bush administration's system of war crimes trials has been working its way through Congress. It seems to have bipartisan support. And the administration seems pretty confident that it's going to pass.
WERTHEIMER: One of the most controversial proposals has been holding detainees indefinitely without trial. Where are they on that? Has the administration decided?
SHAPIRO: Yesterday, we were told that the administration has not ruled it in or out. I should say there was a briefing at the White House with some senior administration officials. One requirement of the background briefing was that we were not allowed to name them. But one official said indefinite detention -still no final decisions have been made about any individuals.
But, this official said, reports that President Obama might try to create this kind of a system on his own using his executive authority - the official said those reports are wrong. He said there is no intent in the administration to rely on anything other than congressional authority. And he said President Obama plans to work with Congress to create a system like this.
WERTHEIMER: Give me a short version on this question, Ari. Does it sound like these guys need more time because they're having a harder time than they expected to?
SHAPIRO: Oh yeah. And rightly or wrongly, they put a lot of the blame on that, on the Bush administration. For example, they were surprised when they took office to find that there was no central file of information on each Guantanamo detainee. That information was spread across various agencies. So one of the first things they had to do was compile all of that information.
WERTHEIMER: What about the January deadline to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay? Where's that?
SHAPIRO: Yeah, well, publicly, administration officials still insist they're going to meet the deadline. Privately, some people are still biting their nails. There are a lot of moving pieces here that are creating challenges the Obama administration never expected.
For example, Congress recently stripped funding for transferring Guantanamo detainees to the United States. A judge, a few months ago, said some detainees in Afghanistan can access American courts. Even so, the Obama administration says they have reviewed more than half the cases of Guantanamo detainees, and they say they're feeling good about the progress they've made.
WERTHEIMER: Thanks very much.
SHAPIRO: You're welcome.
WERTHEIMER: Ari Shapiro is NPR's justice correspondent.
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