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With a stroke of a pen yesterday, President Obama issued an executive order to close the Guantanamo Bay prison within one year. NPR's Jackie Northam reports on the challenges the new administration faces as it tries to meet its own deadline.
JACKIE NORTHAM: Signing the executive order to close the military prison at Guantanamo Bay may very well be the easiest part of the process to shutter the controversial camp. Over the next few months, there will be much discussion, debate and undoubtedly, arguments amongst the president's taskforce and others about what to do with the remaining roughly 245 detainees held at Guantanamo. John Hutson, the dean of Franklin Pierce Law School and a former Navy judge advocate general, was part of a team of military officials who met with President Obama yesterday about Guantanamo. Hutson says the first thing to do is figure out who is really at Guantanamo.
Rear Admiral JOHN HUTSON (Retired, U.S. Navy; Former Navy Judge Advocate General; Dean, Franklin Pierce Law School): One of the things these executive orders do is bring all the documents and evidence into one place, which, apparently, up until now, hasn't been done. So, you've had evidence kind of littered around the world so that it's been very difficult to determine what the real case is here.
NORTHAM: Hutson says once the taskforce has gone through all the evidence and intelligence, it can determine who needs to remain in detention, and who can be released. At the moment, there are roughly 60 detainees who have been cleared for release for many months now, but either the Bush administration did not send them to their home countries, fearing they may be persecuted or worse, or their home country or another country didn't want them. John Bellinger was legal adviser for the former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and worked on repatriating the detainees. Bellinger says one of the biggest stumbling blocks getting other nations to take the detainees was the Bush administration's refusal to bring the prisoners to the U.S.
Mr. JOHN BELLINGER (Former Legal Adviser, Secretary of State, George W. Bush Administration): You can imagine going into a negotiation to urge Europeans or others to take detainees. The first question is always, well, are you willing to take some? And we, so far, have said no.
NORTHAM: Bellinger says he expects things will change under a new administration, in part because there is much international goodwill for President Obama.
Mr. BELLINGER: I certainly can't guarantee it, but I would expect the Obama administration will take a much closer look at whether they could take a handful of individuals into the United States as a way, essentially, to prime the pump and remove that reluctance from other countries.
NORTHAM: Detainees will likely end up in the U.S. anyway if countries are not willing to take those cleared for release, or it's determined they should be tried and detained in the U.S. But already, there's opposition. Yesterday, House Republicans introduced legislation to prohibit federal courts from ordering the release or transfer of Guantanamo detainees into the U.S. President Obama may have to spend some of his domestic political capital in bringing them to the mainland. It also has to be decided how the men will be prosecuted. Scott Silliman, a law professor at Duke Law School, says one option would be military courts martial, which could be held anywhere in the world.
Professor SCOTT L. SILLIMAN (Executive Director, Center on Law, Ethics and National Security, Duke Law School): I think we've got to be concerned, the president has got to be concerned, about restoring America's standing in the world. So, we've got to come up with a fair system, but one which will guarantee a secure atmosphere.
NORTHAM: Glenn Sulmasy, a professor of law at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, says the administration should think of a multifaceted approach, using federal courts for cases where there is evidence, and creating a national security or terrorism court for those men where there is no evidence.
Professor GLENN M. SULMASY (Law, U.S. Coast Guard Academy): We can use this new system of justice not necessarily to detain them indefinitely but to actually try them, but with standards that are different than our existing criminal-justice system.
NORTHAM: Creating that type of court would require legislation, which would take time. Identifying a location and building a new prison would also take time. But many analysts say the yearlong time frame is doable. No matter how it happens, 12 months from now, the gates to the prison camp will be closed; the detainees will be taken out of their cells and put on airplanes bound for freedom or continued detention elsewhere; and Guantanamo Bay will revert to a sleepy naval base on the far side of Cuba. Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.