ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Few prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, are better known than Mohamedou Ould Slahi. His book "Guantanamo Diary" was published last year and in it he describes repeated torture by American interrogators.
Today, a government panel heard arguments for Slahi's release. NPR's David Welna watched some of that session and joins us now. David, what exactly did you see?
DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Well, Robert, I went to a secure room in the Pentagon with some 20 other reporters and observers to watch a live video stream of a windowless, white room in Guantanamo. Sitting at the end of a table there in a white T-shirt was Slahi. He was flanked by his lawyer and two military representatives, and, strangely, an interpreter for this man, who's written an entire book in English.
This was the same video that was being watched elsewhere in Washington by people from six government-related - government security-related agencies. They make up what's called the Periodic Review Board which for the past two and a half years has been deciding these detainees' fates. There's no independent review, and there's no way to appeal their decisions. Although in most cases, they have ruled in favor of releasing detainees.
SIEGEL: Slahi has been held in Guantanamo without formal charges or trial for more than 13 years. Why so long?
WELNA: Well, you know, I should note at the beginning that we observers were only able to watch previously released statements that were read at this live feed. And then we were ushered out of the room, so I can only say from what the government said in that statement that they accused Slahi not of war crimes, but of having sworn allegiance to al-Qaida in the early 1990s as a recruiter for jihad in Afghanistan and Chechnya.
And the government also asserts that he has a broad network of terrorist contacts and that in the late 1990s, he set up some travel for two of the 9/11 hijackers and another who planned the attacks.
SIEGEL: So why would he be freed now?
WELNA: Well, you know, Slahi's military representatives presented him as a model prisoner for one thing, but also somebody who's contrite even though he's never really admitted to having done anything wrong. They said that he understands his past mistakes, and he believes what al-Qaida's done is wrong, and he wants nothing to do with it.
And then his personal lawyer said that he would not pose any threat to the United States if he were released to his native Mauritania and that he has never taken any hostile action against the U.S. nor expressed any hostility. And she said that that can be seen in his book, which, by the way, is banned from the prison library.
SIEGEL: David, President Obama came to office vowing to close the prison at Guantanamo. Has he made any progress in that direction?
WELNA: He's made some progress. There are only about a third as many detainees there as when he took office. There are about 80 there right now. He's been using this Periodic Review Board to whittle down that number.
Twenty-eight of the detainees in Guantanamo have already been cleared. They're trying to find countries to send them to. And there are 10 who are there who are facing military commissions, but there are probably about 30 or so who are either going to be tried and they're deemed too dangerous to release, so they're just stuck there.
SIEGEL: But what happens to the prisoners who can't be transferred to another country?
WELNA: Well, they stay in Guantanamo, and Congress has made it very difficult to bring them to the United States. I think it's going to depend on who gets elected in November what happens next. Hillary Clinton wants to close Guantanamo. Donald Trump wants to replenish it with detainees from the Islamic State.
SIEGEL: Thank you, David.
WELNA: You're welcome.
SIEGEL: That's NPR's David Welna.
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