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Guantanamo: The Next Step

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Guantanamo: The Next Step

Guantanamo: The Next Step

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, we'll talk about President Obama's phone call to the owner of the Philadelphia Eagles praising him for giving Michael Vick a second chance after his conviction for dog fighting. We'll talk with a far less famous ex-offender about why that phone call is so important to ex-offenders nationwide.

But first we want to talk again about the whole issue of the ongoing incarceration of so-called enemy combatants at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base.

Yesterday the New York Times published an editorial encouraging President Obama to pursue additional methods for evaluating whether all of the 174 detainees remaining at Guantanamo need to stay there, especially the 48 considered to be in legal limbo.

That group is said to be too dangerous to release, but they can't face trials because of the circumstances under which the evidence against them was obtained. Congress is now barring the administration from making any major decisions on Guantanamo for the next fiscal year, and as a result, the President who set out to close the detention center, now seems to be accepting the idea of detaining some people there indefinitely.

Yesterday we spoke to former U.S. Attorney General under President George W. Bush, Alberto Gonzalez. He said President Bush wanted to close the prison too, but could not. And President Obama is running into the same dilemma.

Mr. ALBERTO GONZALEZ (Former U.S. Attorney General): And so long as it remains necessary to detain dangerous enemy combatants, and so long as there's not a viable alternative that's acceptable to the American people and the American Congress, then Guantanamo's going to continue to exist, in my judgment. And I think that's just something that President Obama and this administration is understanding.

MARTIN: We wanted to hear another perspective, so we've called upon Karen Greenberg. She is the author of what the Washington Post called one of the best books of 2009, "The Least Worst Place: Guantanamo's First 100 Days." She's also the executive director of New York University's Center on Law and Security, and she's with us from New York.

Karen Greenberg, thanks so much for joining us.

Ms. KAREN GREENBERG (Executive Director, Center On Law and Security, New York University): Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: First of all, can I ask you respond to the former attorney general Gonzalez who told us that the arguments today are little different from what they were previously, that number one, as long as there enemy combatants, a place like Guantanamo is necessary in part because the American people are not going to tolerate these individuals accused of these crimes being on American soil.

Ms. GREENBERG: Right. I mean, I wouldn't disagree with that. I would disagree with the terms of how we understand what indefinite detention is going forward. And a number of the things that you said in your introduction, one of the things was that, you know, we're keeping these people in detention because of the way the evidence against them was obtained.

I'm not sure that's the case for all of these people. It may be the case in some circumstances. It may not be. But if in fact it was because we do have evidence against them, and it came because of coercive interrogation or coerced confessions, it doesn't mean that that information is valid or true.

And what we found out repeatedly is that information gained this way, as in the case of al-Libi who told us under coerced interrogation, torture, that there were WMD's in Iraq, we don't know that to be valid. And so, I think some of the premises of this are not acceptable, at least to me.

MARTIN: Well, he also said that there was no question that the country has the right to indefinitely detain certain people who he says -- he said that international law recognizes the right to detain indefinitely people who are described as or considered to be enemy combatants. I'll just play a short clip of what he said, and I'll ask you to respond to it.

Mr. GONZALEZ: It's long been established in the laws of war that as an enemy combatant, if you are in fact a legitimate enemy combatant, that a country that captures you can detain you indefinitely.

MARTIN: Do you think that's true? Is that your understanding as well?

Ms. GREENBERG: Okay. He's sort of fudging in some gray area. I mean, the one thing that is established, that if you are detained as a prisoner of war in a recognized armed conflict, then you can be detained until the cessation of hostilities. And one of the things that the Obama administration has alluded to in their talking about this executive order is the fact that at some point the people who these detainees are associated with may no longer be a threat, and in that case it is assumed they could be released.

But these people are not classified as prisoners of war. What the Bush administration has said, and the Obama administration has repeated is that because they didn't have insignia, they weren't attached to a state actor, etc., they were not prisoners of war, and therefore can be treated differently.

But in fact, the reason we classify them differently had to do with the fact that we wanted to interrogate them to find out as much as we could about al-Qaida. So there's a much grayer area than Mr. Gonzalez has said.

MARTIN: So finally, I'd like to ask you, what is a better idea in your view? It is not a secret that there are a number of people who absolutely believe at the highest levels of this government that Guantanamo Bay is a disaster. In fact, on our program, former Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, said that she hoped that one of the first acts that President Obama would engage in would be to close Guantanamo because it's a symbol of everything that's gone wrong.

Why do so many people feel that way, and what's a better idea?

Ms. GREENBERG: A better idea is to trust in the legal system that we have until we can have a proper vetting of it that looks at the long-term consequences of what it means not to respect evidentiary standards against people we have in custody. And that is what we have not been able to do, or not been willing to do.

Over the last ten years since the first establishment of Guantanamo, and the establishment of indefinite detention as a policy, the U.S. courts have tried time and time again to craft a system of using the courts against terrorists, and have issue by issue, including the issue of coerced information, found a way to try people in court. We've expanded the material support statute to cover large swaths of activity and of proclivity to terrorism. And we need to trust our courts, or we need to let these people go free.

And I know that's unsettling, but you have to some somewhat transparent system for saying why someone is innocent and why someone is guilty. And you need to create a very, you know, firm barrier against having somebody say, I know he's guilty, without having to present any evidence, that would stand up in court.

MARTIN: Karen Greenberg is the author of, "The Least Worst Place: Guantanamo's First 100 Days." She's also the executive director of New York University's Center on Law and Security. She was kind enough to join us from our bureau in New York.

And if you'd like to hear the full interview that we did yesterday with Alberto Gonzalez, please go to NPR.org. Go to the programs page and click on TELL ME MORE.

Karen Greenberg, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Ms. GREENBERG: Thanks again.

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