MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Nearly 800 people have been detained at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay since it opened in 2002. Today that number is down to 39 - this after the Biden administration transferred one detainee to Morocco. This is the first time a Guantanamo prisoner has been released since President Biden took office, and it signals a renewed effort to shrink Guantanamo's population, maybe to close the prison entirely. NPR's Sacha Pfeiffer has made several trips to Guantanamo. She's here now.
SACHA PFEIFFER, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.
KELLY: So the prisoner released today - who is he? Why was he there?
PFEIFFER: His name is Abdul Latif Nasser. He's a 56-year-old citizen of Morocco. He was captured in Afghanistan in 2001, and military officials say he's a former Taliban fighter. But he was cleared for release from Guantanamo back in 2016 by a parole board that found he was no longer a significant threat to the U.S. But Nasser remained at Gitmo for five more years until the Defense Department announced very early this morning that he's been repatriated to Morocco, his native country. So in total, he spent 19 years at Gitmo despite never being criminally charged with anything.
KELLY: Right. And stay on this point you just made because I cannot get my head around it. He was cleared to be transferred out of Guantanamo five years ago. Why was he still there?
PFEIFFER: Right. His transfer was approved near the end of the Obama administration. But before Nasser could actually be released, President Trump entered office. And you probably remember, Mary Louise, that Obama had pledged to close Gitmo. But then Trump said he wanted to fill it up with, quote, "bad dudes."
PFEIFFER: So the prisoner release process basically came to a halt under President Trump.
KELLY: There are other prisoners - right? - who have been cleared for release but are still at Guantanamo still being held.
PFEIFFER: Yes. There are 10 more Gitmo prisoners in addition to Nasser who are cleared for transfer. Many of those transfer deals were brokered under the Obama - under his administration. Yet the prisoners are still imprisoned. And what's happening now is that the Biden administration is dusting off those old Obama transfer deals and actually releasing prisoners. Biden has said he wants to close Gitmo, and reducing the prisoner population is a gradual way to work toward that goal. I spoke today with the Obama administration official who used to negotiate those Gitmo prisoner transfers, Lee Wolosky, and he said that this is long overdue.
LEE WOLOSKY: We're now 20 years out, and it's about time to wrap up this chapter of our history, to prosecute the individuals, finally, who we can prosecute. And I would note that we still haven't been able to bring the 9/11 conspirators to trial, which is frankly a national embarrassment. And we should release those that we're not going to charge.
PFEIFFER: And by the way, Mary Louise, the majority of Gitmo prisoners - about three-quarters of the 39 left - are what's known as forever prisoners. They've never been charged with anything, but they're being held indefinitely. Nasser may be the best-known forever prisoner because his story was the subject of a Radiolab podcast series. But he's only one of many.
KELLY: And to circle us back to him, to the man at the center of this latest development, have we heard from Abdul Latif Nasser himself?
PFEIFFER: I have not spoken with him. I don't know that anyone has since he's been released. But I did talk today with two of his lawyers. They say they've been told he landed in Morocco at about 2:30 this morning, and they have spoken with his brother, whom they described as ecstatic. But they also call this a miscarriage of justice. Here's attorney Tom Durkin.
TOM DURKIN: It's a tragedy that he was there for 19 years without ever being charged. Not just a tragedy - it's a tremendous black mark for this country as far as I'm concerned.
PFEIFFER: And Durkin also told me he believes the release of Nasser will be the start of a steady winnowing down of Gitmo's prisoner population by the Biden administration. That's widely how this move is being interpreted by anyone who keeps tabs on Gitmo. The 9/11 defendants who are criminally charged - it's possible that rather than go to trial, which hasn't happened in 20 years, they could negotiate settlements with them, sort of deals for life in prison in return for guilty pleas. That's how they may resolve those cases.
KELLY: All right. NPR's Sacha Pfeiffer, thanks for your reporting.
PFEIFFER: Thanks for having me.
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