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Rush Is On To Get Cleared Guantanamo Detainees Out Before Trump Takes Over


The Obama administration is really in a race against the clock. There are 59 detainees still at Guantanamo Bay. Nearly half of them have been cleared to be sent to third-party countries. Congress has been given the 30 days' notice before they can be moved, as the law requires.


But the administration has only a matter of weeks to get them out of Guantanamo because when Donald Trump is sworn in, he could reverse those decisions.

Carol Rosenberg reports on the prison at Guantanamo for the Miami Herald. She's been writing about the last-minute efforts to get third-party countries to take these detainees. I asked her why it's been so difficult to transfer the prisoners who've already been cleared for release.

CAROL ROSENBERG: Some of these countries have gotten a little squishy, let's say. There's a new president coming, Donald Trump. He has a new vision for Guantanamo. He says that he wants to load it up. He says that he has no intention of closing it.

So some of the countries, it's - it seems that they're a little bit uncertain about whether they want to please the departing president and continue these deals and resettle the men who were cleared to go or they want to wait and see a little bit the lay of the land of what's going to happen when Donald Trump becomes president.

MARTIN: Do we have any idea at this point whether or not he wants to continue reviewing the cases of the people who are currently in Gitmo, or does he just want to do away with that altogether?

ROSENBERG: The answer is, I don't know, and if you find someone who knows, they should give me a call because we know very little beyond what Donald Trump said during his campaign about what he intends to do with Guantanamo. I think what you're getting at, Rachel, is if we have review boards and the review boards approve people for release with security guarantees and this administration doesn't want to release them, what do you have down there?

You have 10 men currently who are charged with crimes, facing trials - six death penalty trials. You have these 23 who were cleared, some of whom will get to go before Obama leaves the White House, and then you have what we call the forever prisoners, 26 men whom the boards have decided are too dangerous to release but for whom there's no crime that they found to charge them with. And we don't know in the next administration what will become of these people.

MARTIN: So what does that mean, Carol, that they can't be charged with anything - that there's just no evidence to charge some of these people who are knowingly connected to terrorist organizations?

ROSENBERG: So you have to remember that Guantanamo was set up as a kind of POW location. They didn't call them POWs because they didn't want to give them all the privileges. They wanted to be able to interrogate them, and they wanted to be able to deny them certain aspects of the Geneva Conventions.

But the short answer is they're war prisoners. But you have to have found an act, a crime, a war crime under the international laws of war to charge them with.

MARTIN: It's not enough to just be a foot soldier for al-Qaida or some affiliate. You have to be connected to a specific act of terror.

ROSENBERG: And the courts have proven that in the intervening years. You know, the Bush administration set up military commissions, and they intended to charge all these foot soldiers with something called material support for terror. And in the intervening years, the federal courts have said that's not a war crime.

In a way, that's a little bit the irony of Guantanamo because that is a crime in federal court. Had they brought these men into federal court, they probably would have been able to charge them in many instances with being foot soldiers. They can't at Guantanamo.

MARTIN: President Obama campaigned in 2008 on a promise to close Gitmo. He spent eight years trying to make that happen. Why did he fail in the end, do you think?

ROSENBERG: The short answer is that Congress made it impossible for him to do it, but the long answer is, when he came into office, he thought he was going to look at the prisoners of Guantanamo and either try them or let them go. But he realized that there was a third category, these forever prisoners - people he couldn't put on trial, people he was unwilling and his administration was unwilling to send away to other places.

So it became - to close Guantanamo meant to move Guantanamo, to pick up these forever prisoners and the people who would be charged and move them to the United States, what we call Guantanamo North. Create Guantanamo on U.S. soil. Congress systematically blocked that. And when you can't move Guantanamo, you can't close Guantanamo.

MARTIN: Carol Rosenberg of the Miami Herald, thank you so much.

ROSENBERG: Thank you Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.