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The Supreme Court's surprise decision to consider this week whether Guantanamo Bay detainees can take their cases to federal court could have profound impact for hundreds of prisoners there and for U.S. policy.
NPR's National Security Correspondent Jackie Northam reports on some of the possible consequences.
JACKIE NORTHAM: There are approximately 375 detainees being held at Guantanamo Bay military prison camp. Only a handful have ever been charged, only one has gone through a full military trial. Pentagon officials admit that most are not interrogated any longer. And prisoners' lawyers say the detainees are languishing in their cells.
The decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to review whether the detainees have the right to challenge their incarceration in American courts will likely provide some shred of hope for those held at Guantanamo - some more than others.
Over the past five years, the Pentagon has subtly divided the detainees into three groups. The first are those the Bush administration wants to bring before a military tribunal or commission - that's about 75 to 80 prisoners. The second group are those the Pentagon is trying to release or transfer back to their home countries or a third nation.
Alan Liotta, the director of the Pentagon's Office of Detainee Affairs, during a conference call with bloggers, said that leaves a third group of about 145 detainees.
Mr. ALAN LIOTTA (Principal Director, Office of Detainee Affairs, Department of Defense): The third groups of detainees is that group of detainees who are not going to be brought before military commissions for any one of a number of reasons and who we do not feel secure enough in sending back to their home country. And so those guys are the ones that I think we have to look at as being held over the long term.
NORTHAM: As it stands now, this group of prisoners whom the administration deems enemy combatants won't be charged, won't be tried, and won't be released until the so-called war on terror is over.
Until now, they and the others have not been able to challenge their open-ended detentions. That may change depending on what the U.S. Supreme Court decides. But that ruling could take months. And in the meantime, the political winds could shift. There's already an increasing clamor to shut Guantanamo and move them on to the American mainland. The Bush administration has been quiet about this option.
But earlier this week, the Pentagon's Liotta indicated it's unlikely that will happen, in part, because of the Geneva Conventions. The Bush administration says the Geneva Conventions don't apply at Guantanamo but would apply on U.S. soil.
Mr. LIOTTA: If we were to bring them into the United States, we would have to put them in one of two places: either in a U.S military prison like Leavenworth or in a U.S. federal penitentiary. Under Geneva, one of the requirements is that enemy combatants can't be housed with common criminals.
NORTHAM: Liotta says new facilities would have to be built or vast areas of existing prisons blocked off. He said bringing Guantanamo detainees onto American soil would place a huge burden on the local communities and first responders because of the increased security risk.
Mr. LIOTTA: We know for a fact that al-Qaida would like nothing more than to break some of their brethren out of the facility where they are being held by the United States. And we know for a fact that they've had plans drawn up to do that. We also know that Guantanamo, in its isolation, is a huge deterrent against them being able to attack there.
NORTHAM: And Liotta says bringing the Guantanamo prisoners into America would likely open them to U.S. constitutional protections, including the right to challenge their indefinite detentions, the same issue the U.S. Supreme Court will grapple with next term.
Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.
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