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Obama To Order Guantanamo Closed Within A Year

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is Morning Edition from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne. President Obama is expected to issue orders today to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center within a year. It's a pledge he campaigned on, and it's one of the several policy decisions expected in coming days over how the United States treats terrorism suspects. We're joined now by Jackie Northam. She's NPR's national security correspondent. Good morning.

JACKIE NORTHAM: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: What does this executive order entail? I mean, is it as simple as it sounds?

NORTHAM: Well, yes. The signing part is simple. That's actually the simple part. Implementing it is going to be a bit more challenging. I'd like to say that this is a really, really important move, and it sends out a strong signal to the international community that this is a very different administration now in the White House. As you say, it's essentially the unraveling of some of the most contentious and controversial Bush administration policies for detaining and interrogating terror suspects. Essentially, what the Guantanamo executive order will call for is an immediate review of how to deal with the remaining detainees at Guantanamo, whether some can be repatriated or sent to third nations; some may be transferred to facilities in the U.S. The order will call for an immediate stop to these very troubled military commissions at Guantanamo, as well, and that's the legal system set up there to try the prisoners.

MONTAGNE: Now, you have visited Guantanamo several times. Remind us how many people are there and what they're accused of.

NORTHAM: Right. No, as you say, I've been covering the story for, now, nearly six years, and I've been to Guantanamo many times. And Renee, I have to say, you know, you've watched as these camps have grown, as the number of prisoners there have grown as well, you know, as the military tried to set up this legal process, dramatic moments in the courtroom. There's been hunger strikes, suicides, and about 500 men, over the past few years, men that the U.S., the Bush administration, called the worst of the worst, have been released. To answer your question, though, there are now about 245 prisoners still at Guantanamo. Only 21 have been charged, and they've been charged with war crimes.

MONTAGNE: Well, the whole question about closing the detention center has been all along. So, like, what to do about these men if they don't - if they're not there? What about that? Will they be tried? And if they are, how and where?

NORTHAM: Right. Well, some will be tried. Actually, they're trying to - 60 - approximately 60 - you never get firm numbers from the Pentagon, but approximately 60 are cleared for release. The U.S. just can't get rid of them. They can't send them to other nations. Having said that, though, over the past few days, Ireland, Switzerland, Portugal, have indicated that they're going to take these men. So, if there's a great diplomatic push, they can probably get rid of that group.

But then there are these other groups that the U.S. does want to prosecute. And this is what the Obama administration's going to have to sit down and figure out is how to prosecute them, whether they use federal courts; there might have to be a bit of tinkering there; whether they use the military system, the military courts martial system; whether they try to rework these military commissions that are already being used right now, if they can do something with that, to make them more palatable to the international community and the legal community. The other thing that we're hearing now is the use of national-security courts, setting up a whole new system, and that would require legislation. So, there's some options out there, and they've got a year to work on this, to figure out what's the best way to try to prosecute them.

MONTAGNE: And there is another legal layer here, and that's the concept of preventive detention, detainees that are considered dangerous but have never been charged. Is this whole concept of detaining without charge under review by the new administration?

NORTHAM: Oh, yes, I imagine so. Some people who I've spoke with who are on the transition team - of course, this is- you know, this is a very, very tricky issue. As you say, there are Guantanamo detainees, there's about 80 of them, that fall into this category where there's little or no evidence against them, but U.S. intelligence folks say they're just too dangerous to release. And the administration is going to have to figure out if they want to continue this policy of preventive detention, if there's justification for it. There are many people that say, let's just prosecute these men anyway and run the risk of acquittal, see what happens. The question then becomes, if they are acquitted, are they released? Are they deported? Will another country take them? They're back to square one, again, essentially.

Now, the administration is going to have to put policies in place that extends beyond Guantanamo, you know, in other words, if somebody's picked up in Afghanistan or Somalia, what policies will be applied to them as far as interrogation, as far as detention? And there are a couple of other executive orders that are out there, you know, banning harsh interrogation tactics against terror suspects, and also, we understand, one to close very controversial secret prisons that are run overseas by the CIA.

MONTAGNE: NPR national security correspondent Jackie Northam, thanks very much.

NORTHAM: Thank you, Renee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. 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.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.
Renee Montagne
Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.
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