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Guantanamo Shutdown Stalls, Detainees' Futures Uncertain

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Dana Priest
Washington Post National Security Reporter
Thursday, May 21, 2009; 12:30 PM

Washington Post reporter Dana Priest was online Thursday, May 21 at 12:30 p.m. ET to discuss the latest developments in the move to shut down the prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

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Dana Priest: Welcome all. Quite a lot to chew on today: dualing speeches from Obama and Cheney over counterterrorism methods and decisions. Let's begin.

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Richmond, Va.: We had 425,000 prisoners of war in over 600 POW camps all over the U.S. during WWII. No biggie. We talk about a few hundred prisoners in a super-max modern prison and people freak out. What am I missing? Has everyone been watching too many prison breakout movies and TV shows?

Dana Priest: Well, the difference is the POW played by the rules of war and were treated accordingly. They were state-affiliated soldiers with leaders that basically told them what to do. Like surrender. Al Qaeda is the opposite and there's fear that these prisoners will never quit, that they then pose more of a risk where ever they are held.

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San Diego, Calif.: It's embarrassing that so many in Congress are making political hay out of ensuring that alleged terrorists are not released into the general public to "walk among us." Do these Republicans and Democrats alike think that terrorists won't be (or aren't already) housed in Super Max-type facilities, but will be kept in the Mayberry town jail, or something?

Dana Priest: It's easy, too easy some would say, to gain political points at home with those kind of scare tactics.

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Montana: It was mentioned last night in a news show that there is a top-flight, nearly empty, already-built prison in rural Montana that is capable of housing the detainees. Not only that, but the small community in the area would consider it an economic boon if they were to be relocated there. Have you heard anything about it?

Dana Priest: Yes. I think if the government put such a prison out to bid, it would get many takers, including the Montana facility. In these bad economic times, a stable, long-term prison population needing care and feeding can put food on the table of an entire community.

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Waterboarding: Simple question, in line with the claims by the Cheney family, among others, that there is some dispute whether waterboarding is torture.

What nation or international body officially sanctions waterboarding as a legally acceptable form of interrogation and doesn't consider it torture?

Dana Priest: There has not been such a poll.

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Providence, R.I.: Who gave a former vice-president the right to answer or "duel" with the president of the United States as he makes a major policy speech? I am really startled and disappointed with the way the press has set this up this way.

Dana Priest: The First Amendment as well as the novelty of a recent vice president taking such a direct jab at a sitting president. We did not set this up; I would guess Cheney's people set it up as a counter-punch to the president's speech.

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Dallas, Tex.: Hi Dana, Great to have you back to chat. I am confused by something I read by Ali Soufan, the former FBI agent. He wrote the worst consequence of the harsh techniques was the wall between CIA and FBI, and the FBI stopped using the harsh tactics. Did the CIA have the option to stop using harsh interrogation tactics? Did their continued use have anything to do with the number of contract CIA staff? Why do you think a wall separated the agencies?

Dana Priest: The FBI never participated in these harsh measures. The "wall" in this case, is the wall between evidence (confession or information) gained using methods permitted in a court room, and those that are not. The latter renders any information gained in such session as inadmissible in court. Remember, the FBI's goal is to put on trial and convict the bad guys. The CIA"s goal was to get information they could use to foil the next terrorist attack.

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90-6: So, why was the vote in the Senate so strongly against it? I can understand the Republicans vote, they are fine with Guantanamo staying open. But the Dems? What do they think is going to happen to the inmates is we close that facility?

Dana Priest: It's a vote that lets them have their cake and eat it too. they can look tough on terrorism while, in reality, just telling the president he needs to give them a plan for the prisoners before they will back the closing of Guantanamo.

I think 50 or so will go to a third country. 10-20 will be tried in US courts. Fewer than a dozen will be released in the US. The rest will go through a reconfigured military commission process. Of those, a handful will stay in some kind of new national security prison despite the fact they were acquitted or never tried for lack of "clean" evidence.

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Lyme, Conn.: An advantage to building a prison in Guantanamo is that is would be a hard location from which to escape. If we are concerned about housing prisoners who are potentially dangerous should they manage to escape (despite the difficulty of that happening in a well designed prison), and people are fearful of having such prisoners and potential escapees "in their backyard," doesn't our country still have lots of fairly secure areas, especially in parts of Alaska (where the governor can look at the prison anytime she wants, deserts, and islands including many islands in our various territories, especially the Northern Mariana Islands which is closer to Asia than it is North America. Cuba is not our only fairly secure option.

Dana Priest: i agree

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Roanoke, Va.: Obama is arguing that our principles are what beat the Axis and the Soviets.

I don't recall the candy cane drop on Japan, I thought it took something a little more forceful to end that tyranny.

What's the shining example of evil men being beaten by niceness?

Dana Priest: Good point. But i think he was referring to the ideology of freedom, human rights and capitalism that inspired the brave underground leaders in eastern Europe to free themselves from the Soviet Union and for the Soviets to dump its own government, eventually.

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The truth about the detainees: Dana, you're one of the few people I would trust to provide honest, unbiased answers to some key questions:

-- Of the detainees in Gitmo, how many have actually been confirmed to have committed terrorist acts?

-- When we hear reports that one in seven of the detainees that have been released have "returned to terrorist activity," what does that mean? I've read that in some cases that simply means they gave interviews to Arab media about their treatment.

-- Is there anything in their training that would really make them too dangerous to be housed in SuperMax, other maximum security prisons or military prisons? Why do those opposing housing them here act like they're comic book super villains?

-- Why are they more dangerous than the terrorists we're already holding here?

I have more but I'd be happy if you just answered these. Thanks.

Dana Priest: There are more than 100 who are believed to be hardcore. real terrorists. "Return to terrorist activity" means everything from being picked up on the Afghan battlefield with a weapon in your hand to speaking out in a radical jihadist way about the Americans. I don't think it includes former detainees who have just spoken publicly and critically about their detention.

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Re: Roanoke: I didn't hear Obama mention anything about being "nice" -- he's talking about following the rule of law, which HAS helped us in past conflicts. Soldiers have surrendered partially because they knew they would be treated humanely. If a fighter knew he would be tortured, he has every reason to fight to the death. That hurts us in the long run.

Dana Priest: yes, Obama was making both a tactical, short-term argument and a strategic, long-term argument for their release.

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True, but: I don't think that Republicans would have been as likely to accept Al Gore's First Amendment rights if he'd provided the same level of policy critiques a few months into Bush's term as Cheney is providing now.

In addition, the analogy should not be between Al Gore and Dick Cheney as former vice presidents, but between Al Gore and John McCain as losing presidential candidates. I don't recall the media inviting Gore to comment on current affairs as much as they have invited to McCain to do the same. While McCain remains in the Senate, his party is out of power and he therefore holds no chairmanships.

Dana Priest: It could be that or the fact that McCain is easy with the media (now that the campaign is over), he's accessible, he is more upfront with his answers than many of his colleagues so in that sense, he's a good interview. Gore, on the other hand, was always stiff and wooden.

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What's the shining example of evil men being beaten by niceness?: The cold war was won without a bomb being dropped, largely through economics, diplomacy and yes, the example of our "niceness'', i.e. the Peace Corp, study abroad programs, etc., etc.

Dana Priest: passing on

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Manfield, Mass.: Isn't the issue of the closure of GTMO and the fate of it's detainees, a matter for the Executive and the Courts as opposed to the Congress? Couldn't the president use funds already appropriated for the military and law enforcement to close GTMO, without Congress's Express approval?

Dana Priest: I doubt it since those monies are to maintain GTMO.

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Paris, France: Dana, isn't it the case that Cheney announced his speech first and then the administration scheduled Obama's? In this sense, Cheney didn't set up this duel, the administration did.

Dana Priest: Hmmm. I hadn't heard that. Let me check.

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Candy cane drop: The reason so many Axis soldiers surrendered at the end of the war without fighting to the death is they had a pretty good guarantee that they wouldn't be tortured and maimed and killed once they were in our hands. We can't guarantee that today.

Dana Priest: Okay, but yes we can. Obama has prohibited those techniques.

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Re: Waterboarding: Waterboarding: Simple question, in line with the claims by the Cheney family, among others, that there is some dispute whether waterboarding is torture.

What nation or international body officially sanctions waterboarding as a legally acceptable form of interrogation and doesn't consider it torture?

Dana Priest: There has not been such a poll.

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Forget polls, what about the established laws and rules of these countries and bodies? Do any of them specifically say waterboarding is okay?

Dana Priest: Not that I know of but most countries do not display their interrogation/debriefing techniques. And, believe it or not, there is not that much case law involving the question of what is torture and what is "just" cruel and unusual punishment.

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Springfield, Va.: You say fewer than a dozen will be released in the U.S. What does that mean? What will their status be? I really don't understand.

Dana Priest: They would be the ones that are not believed to be of danger to anyone (if they ever were) and who the USG cannot convince another country to accept. So basically they are innocent.

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Washington, DC..: To what degree do you think general concerns about the U.S. prison system play into this duel over Guantanamo? I.e., there are many who think that the "super-max" prisons have ethical problems of their own, and others who want to reinforce the current prison system --including increased privatization -- even more. So, beyond the world perception of Guantanamo, don't we also have an internal conflict over prison policy in general?

Dana Priest: I doubt that would make or break it. The fact is, we have super max's that are housing thousands now; and we have solitary confinement that conforms, for the most part, to the laws of this country.

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Alexandria, Va.: Ms Priest:

I heard it reported this morning that the Cheney speech was scheduled some time ago -- not as you indicated as a counterpoint to President Obama's speech. Is that incorrect?

Dana Priest: I stand corrected. Here is what my colleague Michael Shear, who covers the White House, says: "as far as we know, Cheney's was scheduled first. the white house first

told us about today late last week (though with no time). so it seems more that it was Obama deciding to do it at the same time...

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Herndon, Va.: Have there been any escapes from Guantanamo? Is there some perception that U.S. prisons are not up to the task of housing those kept in Guantanamo? Is there some plan to release them on American main streets? Why the knee-jerk reaction to bringing them on American soil?

Dana Priest: No escapes. The concern is not that the prisons couldn't keep the prisoners inside, it's that terrorists on the outside would come to town trying to free their comrades. And might pick a civilian target to wreak havoc.

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Winnipeg, Canada: As I understand it, about 250 detainees are still at Guantanamo. Do you have any sense of how that number would break down? How many would be real hard-case threats, as opposed to wrong-place wrong-time people for whom going home presents problems such as reprisals or no clear home country to which to return? And of course there's the one Canadian, but that's another story.

Dana Priest: 30 have already been cleared for release but the administration cannot find countries to take them in. One is being sent to be tried in a NY court. The others await adjudication in the to-be-revised military commission process.

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Jersey Shore: Are we skipping a few steps here? I understand that the Senate voted on this yesterday near unanimously, but of course they can't pass a law on their own. Are we assuming that their vote is binding because the House could be expected to vote in similar measure and that both houses would vote to overcome the president's veto?

Dana Priest: Yes, you're right. But the Senate vote was news because it showed an unusual split between Senate democrats and the administration. You haven't seen that much.

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Anchorage, Alaska: "Of those, a handful will stay in some kind of new national security prison despite the fact they were acquitted or never tried for lack of "clean" evidence."

What's the reasoning behind keeping these folks behind bars? Why can't we find the evidence to try them, or move them out?

Dana Priest: Because the best and sometimes only evidence was gained using coercive interrogation method that would be thrown out of court.

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Baltimore, Md.: Hi Dana, Do you think the intelligence agencies in other countries (excluding obvious ones like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria, etc.) never have enhanced interrogation? Or they don't have clever journalists to find about them ...

Dana Priest: Many of them probably do. And most of them don't have a tradition of aggressive reporting on national security matters.

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Thanks, Dana: As always, you are providing us with excellent answers, but sometimes those answers lead to more questions:

Springfield, Va.: You say fewer than a dozen will be released in the U.S. What does that mean? What will their status be? I really don't understand.

Dana Priest: They would be the ones that are not believed to be of danger to anyone (if they ever were) and who the USG cannot convince another country to accept. So basically they are innocent.

Are you saying these people would be given visas to stay here?

Dana Priest: Yes. There's no alternative. Except keeping someone behind bars who the government has deemed innocent. The courts would not go for that. You can't just fly someone to another country if the country won't take them. We had to do a lot of somersaults to get Albania (!) to take the eight innocent Xighars.

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Aavannah, Ga.: If the "dozen or so" released into the U.S. are innocent, why would their home countries refuse them? Or is this more of a case like the Uighars, who would be in danger from their own governments?

Dana Priest: Yes, that's it. And the US never says they were wrong, that these people were innocent. they say they are "no longer" a threat.

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Dana Priest: Thanks for joining me. Until next time....Cheers, Dana

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Archive: Dana Priest discussion transcripts

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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