At a briefing with a senior White House official on the topic of closing of Guantanamo Bay, one gets the sense that the process will be far more complicated than even the Obama administration previously imaged.
In his efforts to close down the controversial detention facility within a year, the new president is turning to a group of advisers -- comprised of the top members of the intelligence and foreign policy portions of his cabinet -- to offer recommendations about the best step forward. Detainees will be separated into three distinct categories: those who can be easily transferred out of the country or repatriated, those who can be tried, and those who are non-transferable and cannot be tried in American courts.
This last category is where Obama's task becomes difficult. How does one determine if a detainee fits into this group, and where does one store said detainee? Moreover, would the president be amenable to the idea of indefinite detention for these prisoners?
"The president is open to, and has invited the recommendations of his panel," said the official. "So the panel has no restrictions on its ability to make recommendations to the president. If the panel comes up with those recommendations the president will consider them."
But this is just one artery in the process. The Obama team is also imposing restrictions on itself in regards to where detainees will be transferred and how they will be treated. A terrorist suspect, for instance, will not be sent to a country that is accused of condoning torture. That is in direct opposition to the Bush-era practice of extraordinary rendition -- when suspects were sent to certain countries for the very purpose of using harsh interrogations.
"There is not going to be rendition to any country that engages in torture and we are only going to render individuals to governments that we are satisfied are going to take every step to [receive] solid assurances that these individuals will not be mistreated or tortured," said the official.
As for the detainees still in American custody, the Obama team is preparing to take steps that limit the techniques used on them. Under one of the Executive Orders issued on Thursday, the president declared as law that interrogators must operate by the guidelines of the army field manual when handling suspects. But Obama asked that his panel to figure out whether there could be new guidelines that, while not outside the field manual, would provide the intelligence community with a new framework for handling detainees.
"That doesn't mean reintroducing techniques that are inconsistent with the army field manual," said the official. "The army field manual will be what governs in terms of interrogation techniques.... This is not an exception. There is no exception. And in fact the panel may conclude that the way the army field manual functions now is perfectly okay. There may be merit to the argument that some of the standards and guidance associated with the army field manual are not applicable. We are not talking about different techniques. We are talking about guidance."
All of this, of course, will take an incredible amount of very delicate work. The new administration knows full well the political weight of dealing with such a hot-button national security issue. But they seem ready to argue their case on this front as well.
"I think [the president] is satisfied that across the board," said the official, "the administration of the army field manual will not compromise our national security and by issuing these executive orders we are strengthening our country and we are stronger going forward in our battle against the terrorists."
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