ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Here's one sign of how badly President Obama wants to close the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay before his term ends. There's a sort of parole hearing that every prisoner has to go through for a shot at getting transferred to another country. By this point last year, there had been eight of those hearings. So far this year, there have been 42.
NPR's David Welna went to the Pentagon today to watch a live video feed of part of the most recent hearing. And David, what is the point of a hearing like this?
DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Well, Ari, in the words of a government official this morning, it's to determine whether continued law of war detention is warranted. And in fact it's to see whether these accused foreign fighters who've been called the worst of the worst do in fact pose such a threat that they have to remain locked up without charges or trial.
Six federal agencies, including the Department of Justice and Defense, comprise this periodic review board. And as you mentioned, they've dramatically speeded up these reviews in recent months. And in most cases, though not all, they've decided further detention is not warranted.
SHAPIRO: OK, and tell us about the guy who you watch the parole board hearing for.
WELNA: His name is Ahmed Rabbani. He's been a hunger strike for years at Guantanamo where he's been force-fed. He was originally picked up in Pakistan in a case of mistaken identity 14 years ago and taken to a secret CIA prison and tortured, according to the Senate Intelligence Committee, before he and his brother were hauled to Guantanamo a dozen years ago.
Now last month, Rabbani's brother got turned down in his bid to get released, and it's not looking much better for Rabbani. So he may well remain locked up despite the hearing he finally got today.
SHAPIRO: Now let's do a little bit of math. There have been a total of 800 men at Guantanamo prison. The bulk of them were gone by the time President Obama took office. Just 242 were left. Today there are 61 people at Guantanamo. And when you look at those 61, 20 have been cleared for release. Twenty are deemed too risky to ever let go. Ten are going through military trials. So these hearings that you're talking about - only about 10 or 11 people are actually going through them.
WELNA: Well, in fact there's only one prisoner eligible for these reviews who hasn't had a hearing yet, and his hearing is scheduled for next week. So by next month we'll be getting verdicts on him and nine others whose results are still pending.
Some like the guy who went before the board today are Abu Zubaydah, the first CIA prisoner to be waterboarded and who had his hearing last week, may not be deemed eligible for transfer. But it's likely most will be, and that would still leave some 30 prisoners in Guantanamo. And current law bars them from being brought to the U.S.
SHAPIRO: Well, that makes it sound like President Obama may be unable to fulfill his promise of closing the prison before he leaves office.
WELNA: Well, if that's so, White House officials aren't ready to admit it. Vice President Biden was asked in Sweden last week if he expects Obama to close the prison before leaving office, and he replied, that is my hope and expectation.
It's really the endgame now for that to happen. And it's clear that by shrinking the prison population down to the size of a yoga class, the White House is trying to make the continued operation and the huge expense of this prison harder and harder to defend. But congressional Republicans are not showing any sign they're backing down in their insistence and Donald Trump's that Guantanamo remain open.
Just yesterday, all 13 Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee wrote Obama, accusing him of releasing increasingly dangerous prisoners. That was prompted by the transfer last month of 15 inmates to the United Arab Emirates. Expect more pushback on transferring the 20 others still awaiting their release.
SHAPIRO: NPR's David Welna, thanks.
WELNA: You're welcome.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.