Debating the Future of Guantanamo Bay

NPR's National Security Correspondent, Jackie Northam, talks about the debate over the Guanatanamo Bay prison. The Senate Judiciary Committee holds a hearing on the issue on Wednesday.


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

Several members of Congress yesterday added their voices to the debate over whether to keep open the US prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld weighed in again, saying as long as there's a terrorist threat, a facility will be needed.

Secretary DONALD RUMSFELD (Defense Department): The real problem is not Guantanamo Bay. The problem is that to a large extent, we are in unexplored territory with this unconventional and complex struggle against extremism. Traditional doctrines covering criminals and military prisoners do not apply well enough.

MONTAGNE: That from Donald Rumsfeld. Today the Senate Judiciary Committee begins to explore whether the procedures in place for the more than 500 detainees at Guantanamo are adequate. NPR national security correspondent Jackie Northam joins me now.

Jackie, what specifically are committee members looking into?


Well, what they're going to be looking for is any information they can find out about the administration's policies regarding the detainees at Guantanamo, so what sort of treatment the prisoners are getting and more specifically, whether they're getting their due process and adequate legal protection. As you mentioned, there's more than 500 prisoners down there, but most have been held for more than three years. Only a few have had any sort of legal representation, and only four have been charged. So that's created a lot of controversy over the past couple of years. So the committee wants to look at what legal rights are being given to the detainees.

Eight people are expected to testify today, and that includes a senior official from the Pentagon's Office of Military Commissions, and commissions are akin to tribunals. There'll also be the director of the review board for the so-called enemy combatants, which is how the Guantanamo detainees are termed. There's going to be a defense lawyer for one of the four detainees which have been charged, a colorful character named Commander Charlie Swift. And there's also going to be a civil defense lawyer representing several detainees down there.

MONTAGNE: Will the committee look at options for how to try the detainees?

NORTHAM: Yes. One of the things that Republican Senator Arlen Specter, who chairs the Senate committee, is looking at is whether to set up a special court to try these detainees. And one thought out there--and let me say, this is all in the preliminary stages--is to expand something called the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. Now this is a special court that was designed to deal with things like applications for wiretaps and search and seizures, that sort of thing. Now according to Specter's staff, this court would be good in one sense because it deals with national security cases all the time. So it knows how to handle top-secret, classified information.

The problem with the FIS Court is that it's all done secretly. They're all secret proceedings. They're not open. And so, of course, that could create some concern.

MONTAGNE: And these hearings are being held amidst a rising chorus of calls to close the place down.

NORTHAM: Oh, that's right. Over the past few weeks, it's been, you know, increasing calls to shut the prison camp down there. And, you know, it's coming from the Democratic quarters, but also a couple of Republicans have joined in and just most recently, Senator Mel Martinez from Florida. Now no one seems to be saying, `Open the doors and just let all the detainees out.' That's not out there. But what they are saying is, again, `Give them due process. Let's find out who's there, and let's make sure they are being given legal protections.' The administration, Renee, for its part, says, `We are doing that. We're giving them annual review boards. We know who they are, and basically you have to trust us. These are dangerous people.'

MONTAGNE: Well, if the detainees are held for the most part without charge and incommunicado, do we know who's being held at Guantanamo?

NORTHAM: Well, a lot of this stuff is leaking out through Freedom of Information Act documents that have come out and also through these review tribunals and these annual review boards. I've sat in on a number of them, and you find out an awful lot of information. For the most part, they were captured in Afghanistan, but these proceedings are interesting, because the detainee is not given any legal representation. They're told that this is who they are and what they've done, and they can say, `Yes, it is' or `No, it isn't.' So we have a bit of information, but certainly people would like to see a lot more about just who we're holding at Guantanamo.

MONTAGNE: Thanks very much, NPR national security correspondent Jackie Northam.

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