Obama To Order Guantanamo Closed Within A Year

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President Barack Obama is expected to sign an executive order Thursday closing the Guantanamo Bay detention center within a year and stopping military trials of terror suspects held there. It's one of a number of foreign policy decisions expected in coming days over how the United States treats terrorism suspects and foreign combatants.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is Morning Edition from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne. President Obama is expected to issue orders today to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center within a year. It's a pledge he campaigned on, and it's one of the several policy decisions expected in coming days over how the United States treats terrorism suspects. We're joined now by Jackie Northam. She's NPR's national security correspondent. Good morning.

JACKIE NORTHAM: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: What does this executive order entail? I mean, is it as simple as it sounds?

NORTHAM: Well, yes. The signing part is simple. That's actually the simple part. Implementing it is going to be a bit more challenging. I'd like to say that this is a really, really important move, and it sends out a strong signal to the international community that this is a very different administration now in the White House. As you say, it's essentially the unraveling of some of the most contentious and controversial Bush administration policies for detaining and interrogating terror suspects. Essentially, what the Guantanamo executive order will call for is an immediate review of how to deal with the remaining detainees at Guantanamo, whether some can be repatriated or sent to third nations; some may be transferred to facilities in the U.S. The order will call for an immediate stop to these very troubled military commissions at Guantanamo, as well, and that's the legal system set up there to try the prisoners.

MONTAGNE: Now, you have visited Guantanamo several times. Remind us how many people are there and what they're accused of.

NORTHAM: Right. No, as you say, I've been covering the story for, now, nearly six years, and I've been to Guantanamo many times. And Renee, I have to say, you know, you've watched as these camps have grown, as the number of prisoners there have grown as well, you know, as the military tried to set up this legal process, dramatic moments in the courtroom. There's been hunger strikes, suicides, and about 500 men, over the past few years, men that the U.S., the Bush administration, called the worst of the worst, have been released. To answer your question, though, there are now about 245 prisoners still at Guantanamo. Only 21 have been charged, and they've been charged with war crimes.

MONTAGNE: Well, the whole question about closing the detention center has been all along. So, like, what to do about these men if they don't - if they're not there? What about that? Will they be tried? And if they are, how and where?

NORTHAM: Right. Well, some will be tried. Actually, they're trying to - 60 - approximately 60 - you never get firm numbers from the Pentagon, but approximately 60 are cleared for release. The U.S. just can't get rid of them. They can't send them to other nations. Having said that, though, over the past few days, Ireland, Switzerland, Portugal, have indicated that they're going to take these men. So, if there's a great diplomatic push, they can probably get rid of that group.

But then there are these other groups that the U.S. does want to prosecute. And this is what the Obama administration's going to have to sit down and figure out is how to prosecute them, whether they use federal courts; there might have to be a bit of tinkering there; whether they use the military system, the military courts martial system; whether they try to rework these military commissions that are already being used right now, if they can do something with that, to make them more palatable to the international community and the legal community. The other thing that we're hearing now is the use of national-security courts, setting up a whole new system, and that would require legislation. So, there's some options out there, and they've got a year to work on this, to figure out what's the best way to try to prosecute them.

MONTAGNE: And there is another legal layer here, and that's the concept of preventive detention, detainees that are considered dangerous but have never been charged. Is this whole concept of detaining without charge under review by the new administration?

NORTHAM: Oh, yes, I imagine so. Some people who I've spoke with who are on the transition team - of course, this is- you know, this is a very, very tricky issue. As you say, there are Guantanamo detainees, there's about 80 of them, that fall into this category where there's little or no evidence against them, but U.S. intelligence folks say they're just too dangerous to release. And the administration is going to have to figure out if they want to continue this policy of preventive detention, if there's justification for it. There are many people that say, let's just prosecute these men anyway and run the risk of acquittal, see what happens. The question then becomes, if they are acquitted, are they released? Are they deported? Will another country take them? They're back to square one, again, essentially.

Now, the administration is going to have to put policies in place that extends beyond Guantanamo, you know, in other words, if somebody's picked up in Afghanistan or Somalia, what policies will be applied to them as far as interrogation, as far as detention? And there are a couple of other executive orders that are out there, you know, banning harsh interrogation tactics against terror suspects, and also, we understand, one to close very controversial secret prisons that are run overseas by the CIA.

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

NORTHAM: Thank you, Renee.

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Obama Said Ready To Close Guantanamo

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President Obama is said to be on the verge of signing an executive order — perhaps as early as Thursday morning — setting a one-year deadline to close the U.S. prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The still-unsigned executive order is expected to call for an immediate review of how to handle the approximately 245 prisoners who remain at Guantanamo. Some may be repatriated or sent to third nations.

About 60 detainees have already been cleared for release, but the outgoing Bush administration had little luck in finding a home for them.

The executive order will also cover the possibility that some prisoners will be transferred to facilities in the U.S.

Status Of Military Commissions In Doubt

It's not believed that the order will call for a halt to the troubled military commissions which were set up as a legal system to try the detainees. However, hours after taking office, Obama requested that all pending military hearings at the U.S. prison camp at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba be suspended for 120 days.

The new president wants a complete review of the military commissions used to try the detainees at the remote prison camp. The move was seen as the first step in closing Guantanamo.

Other executive orders are expected soon, including one that would establish new rules for interrogation methods.

From the start, the military commissions — designed solely for use in Guantanamo courtrooms — were widely criticized as inherently unfair to the detainees: The trials were mired in delays and plagued by legal challenges.

Throughout the presidential campaign, Obama pledged to close the detention camp and signaled that he was not happy with the commissions.

"I think, clearly, the new administration's legal review of military commissions began long before yesterday's inauguration," says Matthew Waxman, a professor at Columbia Law School and a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for detainee affairs.

He says it is important that Obama made the decision to suspend the commissions quickly, because the longer the procedures were allowed to continue, the more difficult it would be for him to pull them back later.

21 Cases On Hold

Obama's decision immediately froze Tuesday's trial of a Canadian-born detainee, as well as the trial Wednesday of five men accused of plotting the Sept. 11 attacks. The five, who were facing the death penalty, protested the delay in their case. Earlier, they had said they wanted to be "martyrs."

The new president's decision effectively brings all 21 pending cases at Guantanamo to a halt until at least May 20, while the new administration studies the process.

Eugene Fidell, the president of the National Institute of Military Justice, says it's unlikely the commissions will be reconstituted.

"Obviously, the military commissions have been severely discredited everywhere — in our legal system, in the court of public opinion and around the world. So I find it hard to imagine that the Obama administration would exert itself to preserve their viability," Fidell says.

People involved with the Obama transition team say the order would also include repatriating some of the detainees — and transferring others into the United States. Ireland and Switzerland signaled on Wednesday that they may be willing to take some of the prisoners.

Geneve Mantri with Amnesty International says these moves by the Obama administration are positive steps.

"What we're really looking forward to seeing is what the administration puts in its place — what human rights safeguard it has, whether it has the safeguards we'd like to see in any legal system, and all the things that most people have criticized this process as lacking," Mantri says.

A 'Mare's Nest' Of Legal Woes

The Obama administration will have to decide what legal system should be used to prosecute the detainees and where they will be detained, says Fidell.

"The Bush administration left the Obama administration with a mare's nest of legal and practical problems. And it's going to take some time, and the best minds that the legal profession has, to sort those problems out," he says.

The new administration will also have to decide what to do with detainees whom the government does not have enough evidence to try — but whom U.S. intelligence agencies say are too dangerous to release. Waxman, the former detainee affairs official, says Obama will have to strike the right balance.

"In trying to navigate these policy dilemmas, the new president needs to balance on the one hand security, with on the other hand, not just civil liberties, but also legitimacy," he says.

Waxman says it's more important now to move competently, rather than quickly, in deciding what to do with Guantanamo.

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