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President Obama speaks today at the National Archives. He's discussing what to do with terror detainees. And he's doing it in a high-ceiling chamber that holds precious national documents, which means that the president will have the Constitution at his back, and politically speaking, the roof may be falling on his head. The president wants to close a prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. It is not clear where the detainees would go. And yesterday, the Senate voted to block the transfer of any detainees to the United States. At least for now. This morning, we'll visit the prison camp at the center of the debate. Our guide is NPR's Jackie Northam.
(Soundbite of engine)
Unidentified Woman: Open.
JACKIE NORTHAM: From all outward appearances, there's the same sense of security, same purpose of mission there's always been amongst the military guards at the Guantanamo Bay prison camp.
(Soundbite of clanking)
Unidentified Woman: Hello.
NORTHAM: There's certainly the same amount of activity outside the main gates of Camp Delta, the hub of the Guantanamo detention facility. Behind its high, razor-wired walls are several different detention facilities, which at one point held nearly 800 prisoners. Now, only a fraction of that number remains.
Unidentified Man #1: This is Camp 4, our medium security. This is a highly compliant camp.
NORTHAM: Several detainees wearing long beards and white jumpsuits mill about the grounds of Camp 4. A senior guard, who like all the other guards here asked not to be identified for security reasons, wouldn't say how many detainees are held at any one of the detention centers. But he did say prisoners in this camp are allowed to stay outside their cells for up to 20 hours a day, except in the summer months when the heat of the Caribbean becomes too much.
Unidentified Man #1: As you can see, they've got basketball courts. They've got a soccer field. They have planters that they actually plant vegetables in. Actually, they just harvested a lot of tomatoes recently.
NORTHAM: There are also art classes, English lessons and phone calls home for the detainees. This is part of a good news story that the Pentagon still likes to project to visitors. But what visiting journalists really want to know is what's going to happen after the Guantanamo Prison Camp closes? The guard says that's what the detainees also ask.
Unidentified Man #1: They ask daily.
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Unidentified Man #1: And believe it or not, they ask daily whether or not it's going to be closed, where they're going. You know, a lot of them have been here for seven, eight years. So I think they kind of see the light at the end of the tunnel. And they're thinking, you know, man, I want to get out of here.
NORTHAM: There have been questions and controversy about what ultimately to do with the prisoners since they first started arriving at Guantanamo in January 2002. At that time, they were held at this temporary facility.
The first detainees who were brought to Guantanamo in early 2002 were placed here in Camp X-Ray. The cells are made of chain-link fence, the floors are concrete. About 300 detainees remained here for four months while the other detention camps at Guantanamo Bay were being built. Camp X-Ray closed when larger facilities were built at Guantanamo. Now the empty cells and buildings are overrun with high weeds. But Camp X-Ray will not be torn down, officials say, because it could be used as evidence in any future legal case. A military guard now shows a group of visitors around the abandoned camp.
Unidentified Man #2: These are the interrogation rooms that when they brought the detainees (unintelligible) when they wanted information, this is where they would bring them to. That is the bench that they actually sat on.
NORTHAM: There have long been accusations that Guantanamo prisoners were subject to harsh interrogation tactics in the past. But it appears the whole concept of interrogations has shifted dramatically. First of all, officials here prefer not to call them interrogations anymore, according to this guard.
Unidentified Man #3: We don't do any interrogations, ma'am. They're interviews.
Unidentified Man #3: Yes, ma'am.
NORTHAM: Whatever they call them - interrogations, interviews - they're now voluntary. Intelligence officials at Guantanamo say they will not physically compel a prisoner to attend an interrogation session in order to avoid unnecessary risk of injury to the guards, detainees or others. One intelligence officer said: What's the use of hauling a prisoner into an interrogation if he's just going to sit and stare at the floor? If a detainee does feel like talking, he can put it in a request. Otherwise, there's an opportunity every week for detainees to talk, says the detention camp commander, Rear Admiral David Thomas.
Rear Admiral DAVID THOMAS (Commander, Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp): There's scheduled events. The detainees can choose to come or not come. I would characterize them more as a strategic debrief or a conversation, information sharing. So they're voluntary. The detainees can go or not go.
NORTHAM: Thomas says as many as 90 prisoners have volunteered. There have been a lot of changes at Guantanamo since the first terror suspects arrived. The detention camp went from a few rudimentary cells in the early days to the state-of-the art prisons that now exist. If everything goes according to plan, the detention facilities at Guantanamo will be closed within eight months.
Jackie Northam, NPR News, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.