Fresh Air Interview: Journalist Spencer Ackerman, Covering Omar Khadr's Trial At Guantanamo Bay Omar Khadr has been held at Guantanamo Bay for eight years. He is accused of killing an American solider in Afghanistan at age 15. A pretrial hearing for Khadr started last month, and journalist Spencer Ackerman says it's likely to indicate whether President Obama's changes to the military commissions are substantive or simply cosmetic.
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Covering A Terrorism Hearing At Guantanamo Bay

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Covering A Terrorism Hearing At Guantanamo Bay

Covering A Terrorism Hearing At Guantanamo Bay

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

The first military tribunal held during the Obama administration has begun at Gitmo, but it's been getting very little attention. My guest, Spencer Ackerman, says this hearing is very important because it will likely reveal whether the Obama administration's reforms of the tribunals will be substantive or cosmetic.

The trial is of Omar Khadr, the youngest of the detainees captured in Afghanistan in 2002 and moved to Gitmo. He was 15 at the time. He's one of the al-Qaida fighters the Bush administration designated as enemy combatants who should be tried by military tribunals, not as soldiers treated as prisoners of war.

Khadr's defense attorneys argue that the information he gave to interrogators was a result of coercive interrogation techniques and should therefore be inadmissible. This trial could reveal whether military tribunals will allow prosecutors to admit evidence acquired under abusive circumstances.

The pretrial hearing is currently in recess while the prosecution conducts a mental health analysis of Khadr. The pretrial hearing is expected to resume in about four weeks. The trial is expected to begin in July.

Spencer Ackerman has been at Gitmo covering the pretrial and is now in Washington during the recess. He's the national security correspondent for the Washington Independent and has reported for Talking Points Memo, the American Prospect and The New Republic.

Spencer Ackerman, welcome to FRESH AIR. Spencer, would you explain the charges against Omar Khadr?

Mr. SPENCER ACKERMAN (National Security Correspondent, Washington Independent): Certainly. He's facing one really major charge, which is a murder charge, and that's for the death of an Army Special Forces sergeant named Christopher Speer.

Speer was killed in a firefight in Khost Province, Afghanistan, that lasted for five hours. It was really an epic battle and one of the first real epic battles of the Afghanistan war in which Special Forces were trying to take out a compound that they had ultimately very accurate intelligence was populated by al-Qaida operatives who were linked to planting mines and IEDs.

And ultimately, they destroyed the compound, their mission was successful. And in the course of that battle, however, it was alleged that one of the occupants of this compound, Omar Khadr, who was then 15 years old, threw a grenade that ultimately killed Sergeant Speer.

And that's the primary charge that he's facing. It's a murder charge. What's very interesting and perhaps even unique about this case is that this is a case in which Khadr is being brought up for a war crimes charge in a war crimes court for a real, classic battlefield act.

He's not charged with killing any civilians. He's charged with throwing a grenade that killed a uniformed American soldier. So that's something that his lawyers have brought up as an issue in this case, that Khadr, who does come from a family that's very connected, by all accounts, to al-Qaida, has committed a battlefield act as a child soldier.

There are other more minor charges against him, perhaps most saliently material support for terrorism. There's a tape out there that shows Khadr in the same room as a group of militants who are putting together some Italian anti-tank mines for use against positions and roads that U.S. forces and, as we've seen subsequently, Afghan civilians may travel down.

And that tape doesn't explicitly show Khadr putting the mines together. It comes really close, though, in a couple cases. And he's clearly in the same room as people who state on, on the course of this tape, that they want to, you know, kill lots of Americans and kill lots of Jews and cause damage to American forces in Afghanistan.

So those are the major charges that Khadr faces. It's the murder charge against Sergeant Speer primarily, and then it's material support for terrorism.

GROSS: Now, you mention that Omar Khadr's family is connected to al-Qaida. What is his father's connection to al-Qaida?

Mr. ACKERMAN: His father was a financier who had set up, I believe, four different charities in the 1990s in Canada and elsewhere to funnel money to Osama bin Laden. By Khadr's admission, when he was a youth, when he was about, you know, nine or 10 years old, his father had taken him to bin Laden's compound in Jalalabad. He's played with Osama bin Laden's children. And both his father and his mother are rather infamous figures in Canada because of their connections to al-Qaida.

Canada has had a very fraught relationship with the entire Khadr family. One source of enduring controversy in Canada is the Harper government's decision not to seek extradition of Khadr. They basically don't want him back. They want the United States to ultimately adjudicate his case, unlike a lot of different nations that have sought Britain and Australia are two examples express repatriation of their nationals at Guantanamo Bay. Canada has not tried to get Omar Khadr back.

GROSS: Now, this is the first military tribunal during the Obama administration. And it's being held at Gitmo, which he promised to have closed down by now, but it's not closed. President Obama also rejected military commissions for alleged terrorists before he became president, but after he became president, he pledged to reform the military commissions, as opposed to doing away with them.

So let's look at some of the precedents that might be set and what military commissions will look like during the Obama administration. What is one of the most important precedents you're looking for at this pretrial hearing?

Mr. ACKERMAN: Probably the biggest thing that I was there to cover, the reason why I went to a pretrial hearing, is because there's a crucial issue underneath this hearing, which is about suppressing evidence obtained coercively.

Omar Khadr's lawyers contend that from the very beginning of his detention, first at Bagram in 2002, and then at Guantanamo, he was subjected to harsh enough treatment that it rendered everything he told his interrogators to ultimately be inadmissible before the commission. And Khadr's attorneys are trying to get all of his statements made to interrogators over his eight years in detention stricken from the government's case.

And if that happens, it would open the door for every other detainee who's going to be tried under the commissions to file a motion to suppress similar evidence that the government is using collected from interrogations of these detainees.

So, if Khadr ultimately wins this hearing, the government is first of all going to have a much harder time presenting a case for conviction in Khadr's murder trial before the commissions, but also potentially it could find itself subjected to a floodgate opening of motions from detainees about getting their own statements suppressed and thereby potentially jeopardizing the viability of the military commissions as a forum for prosecuting terrorism detainees in general.

GROSS: Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think it would mean even if Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was tried before a military tribunal, if the precedent you're talking about it set, that everything that he said during interrogations would be thrown out because he had been coerced.

Mr. ACKERMAN: It's possible. With Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, there were some you know, there is with Omar Khadr, as well but with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and the 9/11 conspirators, there is more evidence in that case against them than just what they told their interrogators. But like with all potential military commission cases, the government is relying significantly on statements made to interrogators. And this is really the first case of that under the Obama administration and since the Military Commissions Act of 2009 passed.

So it's a really serious hurdle that the government is going to have to clear if this is going to ultimately be the viable and I think Attorney General Eric Holder likes to use the word flexible format for the government to present its cases against terrorism detainees.

GROSS: So this new rule from 2009 says that any evidence that was given by a suspect during coerced interrogations is no longer admissible, but then the question becomes if that's the case, what about statements that the suspect made after those coerced interrogations stopped? Do they count or are they still tainted?

Mr. ACKERMAN: That's entirely correct. And in civilian courts, this is known as the doctrine of the fruit of the poison tree, where if at one point an improper interview of a suspect who's going to be brought to trial is conducted, that taints everything that he might subsequently say to additional interrogators or interviewers or anyone who talks to him playing by cleaner rules.

So, for instance, if you tell a guy that, you know, he's never going to get out of jail and his family might be brought into jail unless he confesses to a certain crime and in the course of that confession he tells you a number of different things like, you know, where he might have met people who are, you know, already in prison or part of a conspiracy. And then his lawyers come back in afterwards and say, no, you can't do that, that was an improper violation of his rights. And then you bring in a different government interviewer who tries to use some of the information from the stricken interview in establishing a cleaner, fairer series of interrogations, that's still not considered admissible in civilian courts.

And the military commissions, in large part because the rules have changed so much over the years, don't really have a body of evidence in the law establishing exactly how far this doctrine goes. So like you say, explicitly, the products of coerced interrogations are barred, particularly abusive and torturous interrogations. We've yet to establish under this system whether that means everything someone said after their abuse has been established is inadmissible before the commissions. And that's what ultimately Khadr's pretrial hearing will establish.

GROSS: And that's why this is such an important pretrial hearing?

Mr. ACKERMAN: Precisely.

GROSS: This pretrial hearing might also establish what is considered the kind of cruel, inhuman or degrading interrogation methods that are no longer allowed.

Mr. ACKERMAN: That's correct. And one of the things that we heard in Omar Khadr's pretrial hearing was a parade of interrogators, most of whom testified under a cloud of anonymity, that they did not subject Khadr to that sort of abuse, particularly not at Guantanamo Bay.

All of his Guantanamo interrogators talked rather openly about how they sought to build rapport with him, how they endeavored very strongly not to abuse him and to establish that the statements that Khadr gave in an affidavit that he had been abused at Guantanamo were not true.

But then we heard that before any of them had interviewed Khadr or interrogated Khadr, we heard testimony that Omar Khadr was subject at Bagram, shortly after his capture, in which he suffered nearly fatal gunshot and shrapnel wounds, to a stress position in which his hands were elevated to the height of his forehead and shackled to the outer door of his cell for a prolonged period of time, in which one of his medics found him crying underneath a hood that was placed over his head.

And then we also heard a story from the first person to ever interrogate Omar Khadr, the person we are told to identify only as Interrogator Number One, that part of Khadr's interrogations featured Interrogator One telling the then-15-year-old detainee a, quote, fictional story about a different young detainee who didn't cooperate with his interrogators, who was taken to a prison in the United States and then raped and ultimately killed.

GROSS: And is it against the military tribunal rules to allow into evidence statements that were made after the suspect was threatened with death?

Mr. ACKERMAN: This is what the pretrial hearing will ultimately establish. The clearest thing I could tell you is that we don't really know yet. Under the statutory language from the Military Commissions Act of 2009 that you just read out, it would seem to be difficult to square this sort of treatment with the inadmissibility standard of the statute, but really this is what will be determined.

GROSS: My guest is Spencer Ackerman, who has been covering the first military tribunal held during the Obama administration. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Spencer Ackerman. He's a national security correspondent for the Washington Independent, and he's been reporting on the pretrial hearing on one of the suspects who has been held at Gitmo for close to eight years. He was taken as taken into detention in 2002 in Afghanistan, after he was alleged to have killed an American soldier with a grenade.

One of the kind of many interesting facets of this pretrial hearing is that the government tried for a plea bargain. And there's a lot of speculation about why the government wants a plea bargain, and I'd like you to talk about what some of that speculation is.

Mr. ACKERMAN: That it's a great question, and one of things that all of us started chasing as soon as we got to Guantanamo about two weeks ago was the prospect of a plea deal coming into effect even before Judge Parrish had made a ruling on admissibility of the statements that Khadr gave to his interrogators at trial.

That remains the biggest aspect of speculation for why a plea deal might be reached, that the government might not want to face the prospect of Judge Parrish ruling that everything Khadr told his interrogators, even when he was not being abused, was subject to the fruit of the poison tree standard and can't be used at trial.

Obviously, there's a larger issue at play here that's seen the United States face international condemnation, and that's when Omar Khadr was taken into detention in 2002, he was 15 years old. And the U.N. rapporteur on the rights of the child and on child soldiering said at the end of last week that she wanted to see the United States just simply release Omar Khadr because for the last eight years he's been in detention, most of that time has been as a minor. So the United States may not want its first military commission of the Obama era to be of someone who much of the world considers a child soldier.

It's interesting that within days of us being there, the spokesman for the secretary of defense, Geoff Morrell, gave an on-the-record quote to one of our colleagues, Peter Finn of the Washington Post, confirming that the government was seeking a plea deal in this case. And Omar Khadr's lawyers made a point of saying that whatever obligation they have to find justice for the other detainees who may face military commissions, their primary responsibility is to their client.

So negotiations are ongoing to find out what's the best deal the government may be able to offer Omar Khadr, and the prospect from a kind of broader questions, to those of us who are interested in military commissions and what they'll look like during the Obama administration, is just whether we have to wait for another case to determine how much evidence is permissible or whether there's a sort of decent interval after someone's abused before evidence they give to their interrogators can be entered into their case against them.

GROSS: So one of the questions in this trial that you're, you know, anxiously awaiting the answer to is whether statements that Omar Khadr made under abusive, coercive interrogation techniques will be admissible and also whether subsequent statements that he made will be considered tainted because of the earlier coercive interrogation techniques.

Now, you mentioned that one of his interrogators had made up this fictitious prisoner and said that this detainee had been raped and was subsequently killed in prison. And he said that to scare Omar Khadr into confessing. Are there other coercive techniques that are alleged to have been used again Omar Khadr?

Mr. ACKERMAN: Well, it gets sort of into a question of whether and we saw this in Abu Ghraib, and we've seen this at Guantanamo previously whether the treatment by guards and not interrogators can be reasonably said to be distinguished in a detainee's mind from his interrogations.

So, for instance, very early in his stint at Bagram, shortly after he had underwent major invasive surgery to save his life, he was shot in the back and the shoulder, he was interrogated while still strapped on a stretcher because he couldn't move so shortly after the surgery.

Shortly after that, he was placed in a stress position with his hands shackled together and then shackled to the outer door of his cell with a hood placed over his head, not as part of an interrogation but as punishment by the guards for some unspecified infraction.

This basically, you know, forced him to have his hands about at forehead level shortly after he had been shot through the back and the shoulder. And one interrogation report of Omar Khadr indicated that this was the word used he was sedated ahead of an interrogation, although his interrogators dispute that he was on anything more consciousness-altering than a heavy dose of Tylenol.

But these are all different aspects in Khadr's early treatment that the defense contends would not be outside of Khadr's mind when sort of less abusive treatment came into play from his interrogators. That once he was initially threatened, when he was placed in a stress position, he wouldn't be able, particularly as a 15-year-old, to distinguish nicer interrogations or less coercive or less abusive interrogations from that initial treatment. In other words that he might think and, you know, reasonably so according to the defense, that if he declined to cooperate again, that he would ultimately be placed back into the sort of bad old days of Bagram.

GROSS: So is there some question of this, of whether if it's a guard who's punishing the detainee in stress positions, does that count as an interrogation conducted with coercive interrogation techniques?

Mr. ACKERMAN: Not precisely. What the defense argues is that a 15-year-old who's been placed in this situation in which his life is now entirely in the hands of foreign captors is not in a mental situation where he can distinguish between guards who may be abusing him and interrogators who may be abusing him, that you would just see, in that situation, Americans, and that's how you would structure your decision-making when it came to figuring out if you were going to cooperate.

And what we'll hear after the government conducts its own psych exam of Khadr are witnesses for the defense, mental health experts, who will testify to that decision-making capability that the 15-year-old Omar Khadr would've undergone.

GROSS: My guest, Spencer Ackerman, has been at Gitmo covering the first military tribunal held during the Obama administration. He's the national security correspondent for the Washington Independent. He'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Spencer Ackerman. He's been at Gitmo, covering the first military tribunal convened during the Obama administration. Omar Khadr is being tried for allegedly killing an American soldier in Afghanistan in 2002, when he was 15. His defense attorneys are arguing that the information he gave to interrogators should be inadmissible because it was given under coercive and abusive circumstances. The trial may reveal whether future tribunals will allow such evidence to be admitted.

Ackerman has been covering the pretrial hearing at Gitmo, but he's in Washington while it's in recess. Four of the reporters who have covered the story were informed last week they won't be allowed back in the courtroom.

Let me ask you about the fact that four reporters who have been covering this hearing were barred from returning. Why were they barred?

Mr. ACKERMAN: One of the witnesses in this case, an interrogator who was the first to interview Omar Khadr at Bagram in 2002, was testifying under a shield of anonymity. We were supposed to call him interrogator one. But throughout the trial and even before the trial started, a number of facts were introduced into the public record that several of us decided to use to identify him, as it didn't seem like the easiest or most intuitive decision to protect his anonymity. And so several of us reported his name, and even though more than four of us did, those four reporters were banned. It was a decision that let the air out of the room for a lot of us in the press filing center at Guantanamo.

GROSS: So were the reporters who were banned?

Mr. ACKERMAN: Carol Rosenberg from the Miami Herald, who's the institutional knowledge of Guantanamo, having reported more consistently and more thoroughly from Guantanamo of, really, any reporter in the world - the Toronto Star's Michelle Shephard, who's written a biography of Omar Khadr, Paul Koring from the Globe and Mail and Steven Edwards from Canwest.

GROSS: And those last two papers are Canadian papers.

Mr. ACKERMAN: That's correct.

GROSS: And Michelle Shephard is also from Canada. And Omar Khadr is a Canadian.

Mr. ACKERMAN: Yes. And it became a rather surprising decision that pretty much the entirety of the Canadian press corps that was left at Guantanamo for the last week of the first two weeks of Omar Khadr's pretrial hearing were told that they couldn't return.

GROSS: And are the newspapers that these reporters represent protesting that decision?

Mr. ACKERMAN: They are. They're protesting it very strenuously, and they started protesting it within, I think, maybe an hour or two after the Defense Department issued the decision.

GROSS: Now had you reported the name of the interrogator?

Mr. ACKERMAN: I had. And I tried to sort of skirt a line to protect the sort of strict rules of anonymity. After he had testified, I didn't report the name, but I had referred back to my previous reporting that had used his name. And I thought that was a way of both respecting the ground rules, respecting the protective order, but respecting our obligation to the public to report as transparently as we could.

GROSS: And are you surprised that you were not banned along with the other four reporters?

Mr. ACKERMAN: I really don't understand a lot of the decision to ban my four colleagues, and I don't understand why it was applied as seemingly arbitrarily as it was, if I wasn't banned.

GROSS: So I should say that Omar Khadr's defense lawyers, you know, as well as the prosecutors, wanted the name of the interrogator to remain anonymous. Do you know what their reasons are?

Mr. ACKERMAN: Their reasons are reasons beyond simply this interrogator. They're worried that because they don't have the same sort of subpoena power that the criminal justice system affords to defense lawyers, that they'll have trouble convincing other interrogators who had talked with Omar Khadr or other members of the intelligence community or really just other witnesses to testify in a case that revolves very heavily around the question of his treatment while in detention if anonymity, once afforded from the bench, is not respected.

It's worth mentioning, though, that the judge who issued the protective order, an Army colonel named Patrick Parrish, did not issue any finding that any of us actually violated the protective order, even after the name appeared publicly. He issued a general admonition that we shouldn't use the name, but didn't find any of the four reporters who have now been banned to have violated it. This was a decision made from the office of the Secretary of Defense, not from the bench.

GROSS: So I guess I'm a little confused about why it's ambiguous about whether they violated the rule or not. It seems like a pretty clear-cut rule: you don't report the name of the interrogator who's testifying. What's the ambiguity?

Mr. ACKERMAN: The ambiguity was that his name and lots of identifying information about him - including the fact that he was court martialed, the circumstances for which he was court martialed - had been public record already. And it seemed like a very questionable decision to sort of reclassify this, particularly in a hearing that the Defense Department was trying to ensure was as public and as transparent as possible.

There are some reasons why, legitimately, peoples names - particularly with interrogators, having classified among them the prospect of redeployment and retaliation that might occur if it came out that a certain interrogator was associated with detainee abuse. But because this individual was court martialed, that's not a circumstance that he'll face. And so a number of us made the judgment call that because it was so clear that this person's identity was already public, that the interest of transparency merited printing his name.

And finally, this individual in question also gave an interview to Michelle Shephard of the Toronto Star in 2008, expressing his expectation that he would testify, and to testify in order to clear his name in the detainee abuse of Omar Khadr.

GROSS: To clear his name and to say that he did not torture Omar Khadr.

Mr. ACKERMAN: As he testified, he believes that the treatment he subjected Omar Khadr to did not constitute abuse, and he wished to testify publicly about that, according to what he told Michelle.

GROSS: Are there other rules that you have to follow in covering this pretrial hearing of an alleged enemy combatant?

Mr. ACKERMAN: We are obligated to cover, essentially, what the Defense Department allows us to cover. There is an extensive series of rules that we have to adhere to that can be unilaterally revoked. There's an appeals process. It's cumbersome, and we'll see how effective it ultimately is. The largest is among, you know, where we can go during the hearing, what we can bring in, the ability for the Defense Department to revoke certain aspects of the proceeding after they occur, if it turns out that something classified has leaked.

And at one moment during the trial, one of the defense attorneys accidentally spoke the last name of one of the witnesses who had been placed under anonymity as well, a then-Army major and now-Army lieutenant colonel, and we were asked after that leaked to not report it. So there are a number of considerations that reporters covering the military commissions have to adhere to as a condition of attending them. And because Guantanamo Bay is, you know, generally difficult to get to and is entirely a military property, if the Defense Department says you can't go back to cover it, then the public just basically can't know what's going on there.

GROSS: Well, Spencer Ackerman, you're in Washington, D.C. now, as opposed to in Gitmo, and that's because the trial - the pretrial hearing is in recess now. Why is it in recess?

Mr. ACKERMAN: So, bear with me for a moment, but one of the things that the defense counsel for Omar Khadr - a Canadian citizen who's been held in detention for about eight years now in U.S. custody - wants to do is call two mental health experts to testify about the degree to which Khadr was able to, free of coercion, tell his interrogators aspects of his involvement with al-Qaida and (unintelligible) involvement with al-Qaida starting in 2002, when he was captured. The government protested that decision and said that it would only assent to such testimony if they were also allowed to interview Khadr and provide their own independent mental health screening.

Ultimately, Judge Parrish agreed with the government's motion and ordered that the government can have about four weeks. The schedule will be formalized sometime on Monday, I believe, in order to conduct this psychological screening. And so the defense was faced with a choice: either it could not have its mental health experts testify, or it could agree to a more or less four-week delay for the government to finish its screening before a pretrial hearing was to conclude.

GROSS: The psychological testing that is holding up the pretrial hearing now, what is the defense and what is the prosecution trying to establish?

Mr. ACKERMAN: What the defense wants to establish is that Khadr, as a 15-year-old, would not have been in a frame of mind to speak freely to his captors because, you know, here he is in a scary and unfamiliar circumstance that adults might be able to cope with, but the mind of a 15-year-old would not be. And the government wants to establish that because the defense has made Khadr's psychological state an issue in the case, that they'll ultimately try and find him in right and fit frame of mind, that he didn't undergo psychological abuse, that he's not experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder. The government wants to establish that Omar Khadr is and was mentally fit to be interrogated, and subsequently, to have statements given to his interrogators used against him at trial.

GROSS: My guest is Spencer Ackerman, the national security correspondent for the Washington Independent.

We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Spencer Ackerman, who has been covering the first military tribunal held during the Obama administration. It's now in the pretrial phase. Omar Khadr is accused of killing an American soldier in Afghanistan. He's the youngest of the detainees taken to Gitmo.

Khadr was 15 when he was detained by Americans. But let's face it, in the world today, a lot of terrorist groups are using teenagers, even boys to commit acts of terrorism, to lay bombs, to run checkpoints with, you know, with high-powered weapons. So, you know, it's such a complicated issue.

Mr. ACKERMAN: That's correct. And, you know, we've seen that behavior in Iraq, in particular, with al-Qaida's affiliate there. They relied on very young boys, and increasingly over the last two years, very young girls, as well.

One of the points that the chief prosecutor in the military commissions - a Navy captain named John Murphy - made in a press conference right before we adjourned for the next couple of weeks was that if, ultimately, the United States was to not try Omar Khadr, he mused that that might have an encouraging effect on al-Qaida to then recruit 15 and 16 and 17-year-olds, people that we would consider minors otherwise, for use in terrorist activities. And he asked the public if they were prepared for such a circumstance.

GROSS: You and other reporters who are covering this pretrial hearing at Gitmo were given a tour of Gitmo. This was your second tour. Your first was, I believe, in 2005. How - does it look different?

Mr. ACKERMAN: That's correct. It does look somewhat different. I didn't really get to see everywhere that I went during my first tour, so I don't really feel I have the greatest base of comparison to make a responsible assessment. I did see Camp 4 both times, and I'd be more comfortable talking about that. Well, I should back up and say Camp 4 is a communal living facility. There are six camps - I'm sorry. There are seven camps at Guantanamo Bay. Some of them feature detainees who live individually. Some feature them - live in kind of dormitory or communal setting. Camp 4 is one of those.

It's for detainees who are the most compliant with the guards there. Omar Khadr, interestingly, is one of them. He lives in Camp 4. And both times, I was able to see detainees exercising, people who looked like they were decently well-fed. I'm not a, you know, a human rights, NGO monitor, so I'd be very cautious about, you know, issuing any firm judgments about detainee treatment just from the glimpses I got. But I certainly didn't witness any abuse. I didn't witness anyone who appeared to be in pain or in poor health or undergoing poor treatment.

One of the most striking things that I did see in Camp 4 the second time, that I didn't see the first time, was a big room that was being retrofitted as a classroom. There was a big, flat-screen TV that was being used to show DVDs that I was told were both instructional and educational. Apparently, at Camp 4 now, there are life skills classes taught, including resume-building courses. I'm not entirely sure how...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: That's interesting.

Mr. ACKERMAN: would tell a detainee what, you know, how to explain the last, you know, how ever many years of absence on his resume that he's undergone while he was at Guantanamo Bay, but, you know, that's happening. Language skill courses are being taught, art classes. Apparently detainees at Guantanamo in Camp 4 are fans of the TV show "Deadliest Catch," about Alaska fishermen. But then you look down at the floor where benches are set up for these classrooms, and you see these kind of iron, circular bolts in the floor that are known as eye bolts, and detainees are shackled to those as someone who might instruct a class comes in, supposedly for the safety of instructor. And you're struck with the sense of how even at the most lenient security-wise still features, during life skill courses, detainees being shackled to the floor.

I'm not saying that they're shackled in any kind of painful position, but it is a reminder that these are not people who are, in any sense, free to move about. These are very much people under detention.

GROSS: Just one more thing. On Sunday, Attorney General Eric Holder said on the Sunday morning news shows that he thinks that the Miranda law needs to be amended to take into account terrorism, to take into account that a lot has changed since the Miranda law was written.

And I want to know what reaction you've heard from prosecutors, law enforcement people, as well as civil liberties people. If you could just tell us briefly what you've been hearing.

Mr. ACKERMAN: I would say from a civil liberties community, it's been rather surprise and disappointment. A lot of people in civil libertarian circles had thought that the Faisal Shahzad case had demonstrated that you can Mirandize an American citizen who's suspected of an act of terrorism and not have that jeopardize an investigation, as by all accounts, he was cooperating with FBI interrogators, even after he was Mirandized and after the emergency provisions of Miranda allowed for about three hours, I believe, of interrogation before Miranda was read to Shahzad. So it came as a surprise that after that occurred, the attorney general would then propose expanding those emergency exceptions.

Interestingly and somewhat ironically, the military commissions - after they were reformed by the Obama administration and Congress last year -had a lot of added process rights compared to previous years, particularly about totality of evidence and on the fruit of the poison tree question. And that was because some senior Obama administration officials were afraid that unless greater process rights were afforded to detainees before the commissions, that the courts would just strike them down.

And they had to look, ultimately, more like civilian trials if the viability of the commissions was to be established and maintained. And so it comes as a kind of surprise and irony that right as that's a consideration for the military commissions to look more like civilian trials, to at least some degree, civilian trials for terrorists may look at least somewhat more like military commissions - at least with the proposed Miranda exemptions being expanded.

GROSS: So there's just one more thing. Where do you stay when you're at Gitmo? Is there like a hotel?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ACKERMAN: It's interesting. There's - on the side of the military base, there is something called a CBQ, or a combined bachelors' quarters. That's a kind of bungalow structure for visiting reporters or for human rights experts or for lawyers.

This time, because there was so much press internationally, we stayed in five-to-a-tent tents that were nice and air conditioned, but reminded me more of times that I've been in combat zones than the last time I was at Guantanamo Bay, in which I had sort of a bungalow to myself.

GROSS: Interesting. Well, thank you so much for talking with us about the pretrial hearing at Gitmo. Thank you very much.

Mr. ACKERMAN: Thank you so much, Terry, for having me.

GROSS: Spencer Ackerman is the national security correspondent for The Washington Independent. You can find links to his articles about the trial of Omar Khadr on our website:

Coming up, rock historian Ed Ward tells the story of Jimmy Donley, a rockabilly singer and songwriter whose career was derailed by alcohol, bad decisions and mental problems.

This is FRESH AIR.

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