U.S. Drops Terrorism Charges Against 5 Detainees

The U.S. military said Tuesday it is dropping charges against five Guantanamo Bay detainees. Also, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the detainee camp in Cuba will not be closed before President Bush leaves office.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

At the Guantanamo Bay prison camp yesterday, the United States dismissed all charges against five detainees who'd been accused of plotting terror attacks and being al-Qaeda members. It's another disappointment for the Bush administration which opened the Guantanamo prison seven years ago. The secretary of defense said yesterday that prison won't be closed before President Bush leaves office. To talk about the latest developments, we're joined by NPR's Jackie Northam. Good morning, Jackie.

JACKIE NORTHAM: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Now, what reason did the Defense Department give for dropping the charges against these five terror suspects?

NORTHAM: Well, in fact, they didn't give any specific reason. There's a lot of speculation, though, and it centers on one of the military prosecutors involved in these five cases, plus another case. That prosecutor is Army Lieutenant Colonel Darrel Vandeveld. And he resigned last month over concern that the military was holding back evidence that could be helpful to the defendants. Vandeveld felt the legal system wasn't fair. He said as much during a pretrial hearing for one of the detainees. And again, he's one of the military prosecutors.

MONTAGNE: Well, did the military give any indication that the decision to drop the charges was linked to this prosecutor's resignation?

NORTHAM: The chief Guantanamo prosecutor, Colonel Lawrence Morris, told NPR that the dismissal of charges against the five detainees had nothing to do with Vandeveld. Colonel Morris said the evidence in the cases had been under review for weeks, that there had not been enough information in the earlier preparation and analysis of the cases, and that it was wiser, more efficient, he said, to just dismiss the charges and work on the evidence.

New trial teams have been assigned. They'll work with members of the intelligence community. They'll review the evidence and go from there. Even though the charges were dismissed, Renee, the five men will not go free. And in fact, Colonel Morris said it's likely they will be charged again.

MONTAGNE: Jackie, let's go through the numbers briefly. How many prisoners are still being held at Guantanamo? How many have been charged so far?

NORTHAM: There are still about 275 detainees remaining at Guantanamo, and they've been there for more than six years. It's getting on seven years now. Only 24 have been charged with war crimes, including the five whose cases have just been dismissed. Only one full trial has been completed, and the rest of the cases are just limping along. These trials are very controversial, and they're completely riddled with legal challenges.

MONTAGNE: Although, yesterday, the Pentagon announced that victims of terror attacks and their families would be able to travel to Guantanamo to attend trials.

NORTHAM: Yes, the Pentagon says this is aimed mostly at relatives of victims of the 9/11 attacks. The Pentagon will do random drawings, and five people at a time will be able to attend. There will also be four sites here in the U.S. which will have closed circuit TV showing the proceedings. But there are a lot of logistical challenges involved. You know, Guantanamo is a remote and active military base. The security is extremely tight. So the housing and transportation around the base, you know, this just presents all sorts of logistical challenges, and the military's already going to be dealing with scores of journalists and lawyers and human rights watchers.

MONTAGNE: And then, of course, there's the question as to whether the trials will continue at Guantanamo.

NORTHAM: Yes. Yesterday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates talked again about closing Guantanamo, but he says that's not going to happen before President Bush leaves office. It will be up to the next administration and Congress to shutter the prison camp. But they're going to be facing the same problems, such as where do you put the detainees, where do you try them? This is going to be a big challenge for a new administration.

MONTAGNE: Jackie, thanks very much.

NORTHAM: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Jackie Northam.

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