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After Obama's Speech, Guantanamo Shows Few Signs Of Closing

Jun 12, 2013
Originally published on June 12, 2013 4:20 pm
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Military commission trials have resumed at Guantanamo. This week, hearings are underway for the man who is accused of masterminding the attack against the USS Cole in Yemen. And next week, the alleged architect of the 9/11 attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, will also be in a Guantanamo courtroom.

The proceedings come just weeks after the president publicly reaffirmed his commitment to closing the prison, but he's made little progress, as NPR's Dina Temple-Raston reports.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: A handful of former military officials eager to see Guantanamo prison finally close went to the White House earlier this month, hoping for details about what might happen next. They met with key advisors but instead of time tables and concrete assurances, they walked away empty handed. The White House hadn't made any of the hard choices necessary to finally close down the facility.

SAM RASCOFF: It's essentially a political battle, a political showdown between Congress and the president.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Sam Rascoff teaches at New York University Law School. And he says Congress is says releasing detainees is a security risk.

RASCOFF: There is an element perhaps at the margins of some security concerned because, after all, we can determine that individuals are more or less safe to be released but we can never be assured at the 100 percent level that they won't come back and harm us one day.

TEMPLE-RASTON: In order to move detainees out of Guantanamo now, under the current law, that is exactly what President Obama has to do: Guarantee that a detainee won't return to terrorism. Congress requires the administration to issue a certification 30 days before a detainee is actually moved out of Guantanamo. That certification has to assure that the detainee will be monitored and kept from returning to the battlefield against the U.S.

Jennifer Daskal was a lawyer in the Obama administration's Justice Department. She says there is no such thing as a guarantee.

JENNIFER DAKSAL: It's impossible to eliminate that risk. It is impossible eliminate that risk when the United States releases somebody from a civilian prison. It's impossible to eliminate that risk in any aspect of our lives.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Officials close to the Guantanamo discussions tell NPR that the administration still hasn't decided on who would manage detainee affairs at the State Department. There are 86 detainees at Guantanamo who have been approved for transfer. That's more than half the population at the prison. But nearly a month after the president's speech, the administration has yet to come up with even a preliminary list of who among them might be the first to be moved.

MATTHEW WAXMAN: Probably the largest single group of detainees at Guantanamo that would plausibly be transferred would be a large group of Yemenis.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Matthew Waxman is a professor at Columbia Law School and managed detainee affairs for the Pentagon during the Bush administration.

There are 56 Yemenis slated for release. But in their cases, Yemen itself is the problem - a civil war is raging there.

WAXMAN: The transfer of detainees to Yemen has been put on hold because of the political situation inside Yemen.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Yemen is also home to al-Qaida's most dangerous affiliate.

The government of Yemen, for its part, has asked the U.S. for $20 million to build a rehabilitation facility for returning detainees and other suspected terrorists. The math is on their side. That works out to about half the cost of keeping the 56 Yemenis at Guantanamo for a year.

Because it's so complicated to move detainees back to Yemen, administration officials tell NPR that the first transfers will likely come from a small pool of Moroccan and Algerian detainees instead. They all have connections with local Islamist groups in Morocco and Algeria, but not with Al-Qaida. And they have another thing in their favor. Their home countries have good facilities where the detainees who would be transferred could be monitored.

One new sign that Guantanamo won't be closing any time soon: U.S. Southern Command has requested nearly 200 more troops and civilians to be assigned to the prison.

Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News.


TEMPLE-RASTON: This is NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.