A Week of Political Questions

The week's political news includes discussion of closing the prison at Guantanamo; Vice President Cheney's assertion that he is not a member of the executive branch; and talk that the Iraq Study Group will return.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

When Democrats took over Congress last winter. They were expected to confront the Bush administration on a range of issues relating to the war in Iraq, the larger war on terror, and the powers and privileges of the White House itself. And there's been no lack of partisan back and forth so far this year, but the administration has also found itself facing criticism and challenge from individuals and agencies other than Congress, including some within the executive branch itself.

Joining us to talk about some of this internal siege is NPR senior Washington editor Ron Elving. Greetings, Ron.

RON ELVING: Greetings, Liane.

HANSEN: One symbol of - a big symbol of the administration's struggle in the war on terror is the prison at Guantanamo Bay. This is the detention center for people in the United States, or the United States rather, has designated enemy combatants as opposed to prisoners of war. It's been on operation for five years and more. Now there are reports it may be closed. What's going on?

ELVING: There has been a battle, Liane, inside the administration and it goes back for a period of years already, between some of the most powerful figures in the administration over whether or not it's really useful to have Guantanamo Bay to do it in this way; to designate any enemy combatants rather than prisoners of war. And most recently, the battle has been rejoined with the new secretary of defense, Robert Gates, joining forces with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to question the relative usefulness of Guantanamo Bay. And they'd rather get it closed down, get these prisoners dispersed to other facilities. But others in the administration, including the attorney general, Alberto Gonzales, and also the vice president, Dick Cheney, have said: No, we still need these. We have to have some place to keep these people. We don't want a lot of them loose back on the world.

And if you take them into regular American prisons or even military prisons on U.S. soil there's going to be a whole new constitutional question about the way they're being held, and the Military Commissions Act, and you'll have a flood of new litigation. And that's just not something they want to try to handle right now. So they like to keep Guantanamo Bay going just the way it is.

HANSEN: Well, this weekend, one of the military lawyers who worked on Guantanamo cases questioned the basic process by which these individuals were designated enemy combatants. Elaborate.

ELVING: Yes, and when this happens, you really do get a whole new area of discussion within the administration and in the general legal community. Lieutenant Colonel Steve Abraham has sworn an affidavit in which he says that the military lawyers, such as himself, who were deciding who was an enemy combatant, who is supposed to be Captain Guantanamo, and who was going to be subject to these military commissions, they were pressured to declare the people that were brought before them, enemy combatants - unlawful enemy combatants - on evidence that was often nonspecific that did not necessarily relate to that particular individual in a convincing way, and so that they could be held indefinitely, as we have seen at Guantanamo without being charged with a crime.

Now, this comes at a time when military courts themselves have thrown out a couple of cases that were being brought under the Military Commissions Act said that the wording wasn't right. Saying that the way they were charged and the way they were brought to court was not lawful. And so we've already had some of these proceedings called under question. And Congress is looking to revise the rules that they most recently passed for all of this process.

HANSEN: I want to talk a little bit about the vice president because he is almost a hub in which a lot of this controversy revolves. In The Washington Post is beginning a series featuring his penchant for secrecy. His office declines to disclose the names, the size of his staff, keeps all the paperwork under lock and key, won't cooperate even with the administration on the handling of classified material. Tell us what's going on there?

ELVING: Well that last point has already gotten the vice president into some public trouble. There's a small oversight office within the National Archives that has authority to secure the handling of all classified material and, of course, quite a bit of it goes through the hands of Dick Cheney and his staff.

He was cooperating with this for the first couple of years he was in office, but then the order was altered in 2003 and since then Dick Cheney has not been cooperating with this oversight office. And that's prompted complaints to the Justice Department, no response from Justice yet. And it's also going to lead for more - to more complaints from Congress. You want to stay tuned on this one because the focus on the vice president is going to intensify in the days ahead.

HANSEN: And we get this legislative, executive - what is the vice president's office anyway, right?

ELVING: Right. He is claiming that he is not under the normal executive oversight because his office also includes being president of the Senate, so he's a special animal, maybe even a fourth branch of government.

HANSEN: NPR senior Washington editor Ron Elving. Ron, thanks very much.

ELVING: Thank you, Liane.

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