Senate to Hold Hearings on Guantanamo Prison Camp

The U.S. Senate has scheduled hearings on the legal procedures used at the U.S. military's detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Democrats and some Republicans say the abuses alleged to occur there are dragging down America's image internationally, and leaves the 500-plus prisoners there in a "legal black hole" where they can potentially be held their entire lives with no legal recourse.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

Now to Washington. Earlier today, "Morning Edition" led its news with the story of the Senate Judiciary Committee holding a hearing to examine the treatment of prisoners held by the US military. Those hearings are now under way. Over the past few weeks, there's been a growing chorus of calls to close the US prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. This hearing today focuses on the legal rights of the approximately 520 detainees who are held there. Here is Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont. He's the ranking Democrat on the panel.

Senator PATRICK LEAHY (Democrat, Vermont): Our great country, America, was once viewed as a leader in human rights in the rule of law and justly so. But Guantanamo has undermined our leadership, has damaged our credibility, has drained the world's goodwill for America at alarming rates.

CHADWICK: NPR national security correspondent Jackie Northam is covering this story. She's been in the Senate Judiciary Committee. She joins us now from Capitol Hill.

Jackie, what are the members of the Senate Judiciary Committee looking for?

JACKIE NORTHAM reporting:

Well, there's several things. At the nub of it is to try to figure out the legal rights for these detainees that are being held down in Guantanamo. Now Republican Senator Arlen Specter, who is the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said right from the outset, `Lookit, this is not a forum where we can talk about abuse or torture or anything like that. Let's keep it very narrowly focused here.' And that's what they've been going back and forth with the four people that have come to testify. Amongst those four is this fellow from the Pentagon that runs the whole military commissions down at Guantanamo. Another one is the head of the policy that reviews whether these detainees down there are enemy combatants. There's also the inspector general from the Department of Justice. So there's--they've been grilled on both sides, really, about just really: Are these detainees getting due process, and really do they deserve it, should they get it?

CHADWICK: Well, what have these witnesses been saying?

NORTHAM: Well, frankly, on this side, they're saying, `No, you basically have to trust us. These are dangerous people. We review their cases and we determine if they're not enemy combatants, there's no longer a threat, then we let them go.' And actually Senator Specter said to a couple of them, `Well, look, you're taking the word of somebody that you've determined to be an enemy combatant, and you just believe them and then let them go? And how can you do that?' So it's those kind of questioning. And it's very interesting. There's a lot of other questions about the operations down there. In fact, it was Senator Leahy said, `How many people?' And when you introduced the story, Alex, you were saying approximately 500. None of the panel could answer that. Nobody really knew who they should go to. One of the people testifying said, `I think the secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld.' And Leahy says, `Well, he doesn't know, either.' So there's a lot of things like that coming out, just that we don't know truly who is there, what they're being held on, or even the number of them.

CHADWICK: Are you saying that these representatives from the Bush administration testified before the Senate today that they do not know how many detainees are being held at Guantanamo?

NORTHAM: That's absolutely right. Again, this is such an isolated place, Alex. There's so much that we don't know that goes on there and that's what they're trying to get to here as well as to figure out: Should these prisoners be given more rights?

CHADWICK: NPR national security correspondent Jackie Northam at the hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee today on the Guantanamo Bay facilities. We'll have more coverage later today on "All Things Considered."

Jackie, thank you.

NORTHAM: Thank you, Alex.

CHADWICK: And for the moment, stay with us here on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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