Candidates Diverge on Next Steps for Guantanamo Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and Arizona Sen. John McCain agree that the U.S. prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, should be closed. But they disagree on what to do with the roughly 270 detainees still held there.
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Candidates Diverge on Next Steps for Guantanamo

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Candidates Diverge on Next Steps for Guantanamo

Candidates Diverge on Next Steps for Guantanamo

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ARI SHAPIRO, host:

And Senators Obama and McCain agreed that the U.S. prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba should be closed. They disagree over what to do with the hundreds of enemy combatants currently held there. NPR's Jackie Northam reports.

JACKIE NORTHAM: Since they hit the campaign trail, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama and his Republican counterpart John McCain have declared in no uncertain terms that they want to close the U.S. prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois, Presidential Candidate): Guantanamo, that's easy - close down Guantanamo, restore habeas corpus, say no to renditions.

(Soundbite of applause)

Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona, Presidential Nominee): No, I always favored closing of Guantanamo Bay and I still think that we ought to do that.

NORTHAM: But the nagging unanswered question is what to do with the roughly 270 detainees still held there. For months the Pentagon has said around 80 prisoners were no longer a threat to the U.S. and have been trying to transfer them off the island but can't. Their home governments won't take them back, may persecute them, or release them, thereby creating a security risk.

The U.S. wants to try another 80 prisoners and roughly 100 more are considered too dangerous to release but won't be prosecuted.

Susan Rice, Obama's foreign policy advisor, says it's unclear how this situation will change with a new administration.

Ms. SUSAN RICE (Obama Campaign's Foreign Policy Advisor): It's premature and until a new administration has the ability to learn what we can't without the benefit of classified information about the nature of the detailed cases against each of these individuals, it would be sort of foolish to speculate.

NORTHAM: Obama has said one choice is to move the terror suspects to a civilian prison on the mainland, such as Supermax in Florence, Colorado where several high profile convicted terrorists are held. He favors trying the men under civilian or military law. McCain disagrees with transferring the Guantanamo detainees to a civilian facility, and says they should be tried under military commissions which were drawn up solely for trying Guantanamo terror suspects. However, both candidates agree a military prison such as Fort Leavenworth in Kansas would be an option for holding the detainees. Bradford Berenson, a Washington lawyer who helped draw up the Bush Administration's Guantanamo detention policies, says a new president should think twice about importing the detainees into the heartland of the U.S.

Mr. BRADFORD BERENSON (Attorney): There would be a tremendous backlash, whether fairly or unfairly, it would probably play out like the gays in the military issue did for President Clinton early in his term. It would be perceived by a large segment of the population as a sign that the new president just doesn't get it when it comes to military and intelligence and terrorism matters.

NORTHAM: But already, the detainees are one step closer to the U.S. after the Supreme Court ruled earlier this month that Guantanamo prisoners have the right to challenge their detention in American federal courts. Obama applauded the Court's decision, not so McCain.

Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona; Presidential Candidate): These are enemy combatants. These are people who are not citizens. They do not and never have been given the rights that citizens of this country have. And my friends, there are some bad people down there.

(Soundbite of applause)

Senator MCCAIN: There are some bad people.

(Soundbite of applause)

NORTHAM: But the hearings before a federal judge to determine whether there's enough evidence to hold the detainee indefinitely could help a new president resolve the Guantanamo problem, says John Hudson, the Dean of Franklin Pierce Law School and a former Navy Judge Advocate General. Hudson says the hearings will help weed out the innocent from the bad guys and will help satisfy the public that the men are being held fairly or that they really are not a threat and can be safely sent home. Hudson says that could help reduce the numbers.

Mr. JOHN HUDSON (Dean of Franklin Pierce Law School): When the cases really see the light of day and other countries can find out what the real evidence is, what the real situation is, they may be more inclined to take them, because they're not just dealing with the rhetoric that has been propounded over the years.

NORTHAM: One theory is that the new administration shut Guantanamo and just move the detainees to another location, such as Afghanistan. The new $12 million legal complex at Guantanamo is designed to be quickly dismantled and shipped to a new location if necessary. Lawyers Hudson and Berenson say that won't happen. It would probably be illegal to move the prisoners now that they've been granted habeas corpus rights, the chance to challenge their incarcerations in U.S. courts. But that is a long process and despite the calls to close the prison camp, it's unlikely Guantanamo Bay will shut one day after a new president takes office, or anytime soon after that.

Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.

(Soundbite of music)

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