Deciding the Future of Guantanamo

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Bush administration officials are debating the future of the U.S. prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice want it closed down; Vice President Cheney and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales want to keep it open. Debbie Elliott talks with Jackie Northam about the new focus on Guantanamo.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

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.

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Military Lawyer Questions Guantanamo Hearings

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Lt. Col. Stephen Abraham, a military lawyer in the Army Reserve, has filed an affidavit casting doubt on the fairness of hearings that determine whether detainees will be held at the prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Abraham, a 26-year veteran of military intelligence, tells Debbie Elliott that personnel were pressured into declaring detainees "enemy combatants" on the basis of vague or incomplete evidence.

In September 2004, he was on active duty and assigned to the Defense Department office that oversees the Combatant Status Review Tribunals. The tribunals allow the government to hold terrorism suspects indefinitely at Guantanamo without charging them with a crime.

In an affidavit made public Friday, Abraham described a tribunal process that relied on limited and generic intelligence. He said officers were pressured to declare detainees "enemy combatants."

The Pentagon says Abraham was not in a position to have a complete view of the process, which it deems fair and robust.

Abraham's affidavit, submitted to the U.S. Supreme Court, is the first criticism by a member of the military panels that determine whether detainees will continue to be held.

Despite repeated requests, intelligence agencies arbitrarily refused to provide specific information that could have helped either side in the tribunals, according to Abraham, who said he served as a main liaison between the Combat Status Review Tribunals and the intelligence agencies.

"What were purported to be specific statements of fact lacked even the most fundamental earmarks of objectively credible evidence," Abraham said in the affidavit submitted on behalf of a Kuwaiti detainee, Fawzi al-Odah, who is challenging his classification as an "enemy combatant."

Abraham's affidavit "proves what we all suspected, which is that the CSRTs were a complete sham," said a lawyer for al-Odah, David Cynamon.

Abraham said he first raised his concerns when he was on active duty with the Defense Department agency in charge of the tribunal process from September 2004 to March 2005 and felt the issues were not adequately addressed. He said he decided his only recourse was to submit the affidavit.

From NPR reports and The Associated Press

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