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ARUN RATH, HOST:

It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. I'm Arun Rath.

The crisis in Guantanamo keeps growing in size and intensity. According to the military's own count, 100 of the 166 men held in the prison there are now on hunger strike. And the 27 most in danger of dying are being force-fed. Last month, guards had to forcibly subdue a camp where even the most cooperative detainees are held. The hunger strike was triggered on Feb. 6th by a search of inmates' Qurans. The details are hotly disputed, but what's remarkable is that everyone - detainees, lawyers, the military - they all agree about the real reason for the unrest.

CAROL ROSENBERG: The issue is frustration that this thing has just gone on too long.

RATH: That's the Miami Herald's Carol Rosenberg, who's been reporting on Guantanamo since the '90s.

ROSENBERG: Remember, the president said more than four years ago he was going to close it down. Flash forward to Feb. 6th. It was the spark that lit the anger and the frustration; that nothing had changed, that 86 of them - 86 of the 166 men were cleared for release, and nobody seemed to be leaving.

RATH: That's our cover story today: Is the prison in Guantanamo here to stay?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: It is not a surprise to me that we've got problems in Guantanamo.

RATH: If the hunger strike is intended to draw attention, it's working brilliantly. After months of silence on the issue, President Obama renewed his years' old pledge, speaking at a recent press conference.

OBAMA: When I was elected in 2008, I said, we need to close Guantanamo. I continue to believe that we've got to close Guantanamo.

RATH: But there hasn't been any will in Congress to do that. Republican or Democrat, no one wants detainees kept in their state. And polls show a majority of Americans do not want the prison in Guantanamo to close.

Lt. Col. Stuart Couch was assigned as a prosecutor in Guantanamo Bay in 2002. And for him, it was also personal. Prior to becoming a lawyer, he'd been a pilot in the Marine Corps. He then went to a law school. His friend Michael Horrocks got a job with United Airlines.

STUART COUCH: So after 9/11, the word went around our very small community that Mike had been the co-pilot for United 175, which was the second airplane to hit the World Trade Center.

RATH: Col. Couch is a self-described conservative Republican and devout Christian. His feelings about the mission began to change upon his first trip to Guantanamo in 2003, when he stumbled upon a disturbing scene. He described to me what he saw.

COUCH: At the end of the hallway, I heard this really heavy metal rock music coming from one of the interview rooms. So I walked down the hallway, to get them to turn it down. When I looked into the door - it was ajar - the room was blacked out, with the exception of a strobe light in the end of the room. And the music was just deafening. At the end of the room, I could see a detainee wearing the orange jumpsuit, and he was shackled hand to foot, seated on the floor; and he was rocking back and forth. I could see his lips moving, which I interpreted that he was praying.

There were these two civilian men there. And I asked them, you know, what was going on? And they basically told me to move along, and they shut the door in my face. And when I saw that scene is the first inkling that I had, that there was a problem with what was going on at Guantanamo.

RATH: And how long was it before you got a sense that maybe this was not an aberration, not an isolated incident?

COUCH: Well, there was an Air Force captain, a lawyer who was accompanying me at that moment. And I turned to him and I said, did you see that? And he said, yeah, that's approved. When I heard that, that was sort of code word to me that this was something that was being policy driven.

RATH: How did this affect what you were trying to do, in terms of doing your job?

COUCH: Well, the concern I had as a prosecutor was, the circumstances upon which those statements were taken was going to be essential. So when I saw what I saw, the light in my head went off that we might have problems with the evidence that we have against these detainees. Ultimately, I had reservations from a moral perspective, as a Christian.

RATH: I want to talk about that. Can you explain how that detainee abuse offended your sense of Christian morality?

COUCH: Well, one of the basic tenants of the Christian faith is the notion of the inherent dignity of every human being. That is derived from the Christian belief that God created man in his own image. And as I see it, the torture of another human being, it comes from the same bolt of cloth.

RATH: Now, you took your concerns - you know, you wrote memos, let your supervisors know that there were some real legal problems with this evidence and with these cases. What happened?

COUCH: Well, there was one specific case where I raised all of these concerns. The detainee...

RATH: Was this Mohamedou Slahi?

COUCH: This was Mohamedou Ould Slahi. He was subjected to the enhanced interrogation techniques that I subsequently found out had been approved up to the level of the secretary of defense. What I found out later of his interrogations, they included sensory deprivation. It was insinuated that he would be killed. There was one incident where a mock execution was being carried out. Knowing the information I did, I had an ethical obligation to provide the information that I knew to any defense attorney that would represent Slahi in the future, so that he could avail himself of the protections of the U.N. torture convention. Ultimately, for me, though, from a moral perspective as a Christian, I just felt like what had been done to this man was reprehensible. And for that reason, I would have nothing else to do with this prosecution.

RATH: Lt. Col. Couch abandoned that case in May of 2004. Mohamedou Slahi still has not had his day in court. The Miami Herald's Carol Rosenberg feels that the Guantanamo prison represents a significant shift in American values.

ROSENBERG: Before Sept. 11th, I never imagined that we would be talking about holding people forever who we couldn't charge; for whom there was either insufficient evidence to bring them to trial, or for whom the evidence was so tainted that we couldn't bring them to trial.

RATH: So how do we balance justice with security? Alberto Gonzales was in President Bush's inner circle in the critical days after 9/11. I asked him if in a rush to extract secrets from the enemy, did we jeopardize our ability to convict these men for their crimes?

ALBERTO GONZALES: I think that President Bush understood that some of the measures that we took in order to gather up information, in order to keep America safe, might make it more difficult to prosecute individuals in the future. But as far as he was concerned, that was the balance that we were going to strike in order to make sure that not another human life here, in America, would be at jeopardy.

RATH: Gonzales served as White House counsel at the time of the 9/11 attacks. And he succeeded John Ashcroft as U.S. attorney general, in 2005. Gonzales still believes - as he did in 2001 - that the prisons in Guantanamo serve an essential purpose, and that there is no immediate need to shut them down.

GONZALES: I fundamentally disagree with President Obama on this. I think that if you go visit the facility at Guantanamo - and I visited the facility three times, when I was White House counsel - I'd have to say that today, I suspect the facility, quite frankly, is much better in terms of the protections, the amenities given to the detainees there, than what you might find in some state and local facilities here in this country. When President Obama says that what we're doing there is inconsistent with our values, I don't understand what he's referring to when he says - makes that kind of statement.

RATH: You said that both President Bush and Secretary Rumsfeld very much wanted to see the prison at Guantanamo closed. If it made sense as an institution and is consistent with our values, why the desire to get rid of it?

GONZALES: Well - of course - because as has been widely reported, there were negative repercussions from Guantanamo. A lot of publicity - some of it accurate; much of it inaccurate, in terms of conditions and mistreatment at Guantanamo. We know that it was used as a recruiting tool for al-Qaida. We always envisioned that it would not be a long-term solution to the issue of detention. And we hoped that we could find a solution, at some point, so that we could close Guantanamo as quickly as possible.

RATH: Earlier, I spoke with a former military commissions prosecutor, Lt. Col. Stuart Couch. He considers this very deeply and morally. He said that he's worried that American values, in a sense, might have changed over the last 10 years. What would you say to Col. Couch?

GONZALES: What I'd say to Col. Couch is that again, I fail to understand when someone says it's inconsistent with our values. It's totally consistent with international law. It's totally consistent with our Constitution. It's totally consistent with our tradition and our practice, when you look back at the history of conflicts that the United States has been in. And so people still may not like it. It bothers them that we can detain someone indefinitely, without charges. They may not like it. That's one thing. We can have a debate about that. But if the question is whether or not what we're doing there is lawful or constitutional, then I don't think that that can be debated, quite frankly. It is lawful, and I hope this administration is more successful than the Bush administration was, in finding an alternative solution.

And President Bush charged us with trying to find an alternative. We were not able to do so. I'm sure President Obama has charged his administration with finding a solution that would be acceptable not only to the Congress, but also to the will of the American people.

RATH: Former U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

Even if President Obama succeeds in closing the Guantanamo prison, he's been less clear about addressing the root cause of the current crisis there - the hopelessness of the inmates' indefinite detention. The Miami Herald's Carol Rosenberg thinks that we'll have the prison in Guantanamo - or the same thing, under a different name - forever.

ROSENBERG: I can't see how we're going to get out of this. I know they've been able to reduce it. I imagine that down the road, they'll find a way to get some more people home. But I don't see how they're going to be able to, if not empty the cells, then end the kind of detention that we think of as Guantanamo.

RATH: Meanwhile, whatever the debate, the facts on the ground in Guantanamo Bay tell their own story. The military is spending millions on new infrastructure around the prisons, including a cardiac-care unit to accommodate an aging inmate population.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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