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Reporter Reflects On Obama's Stalled Effort to Close Guantanamo


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. In the videos posted by ISIS the two kidnapped American journalists who were beheaded were dressed in orange, like the orange jumpsuits associated with detainees at Guantanamo Bay. My guest Charlie Savage made a reporting trip to Gitmo last month. He made his first trip there in 2003 and has written extensively about the prison. He wrote an article published in Sunday's New York Times describing how sections of Guantanamo are decaying, while some buildings have been abandoned. What conditions are like for detainees, how expensive it's become to keep Gitmo open and the political reasons it remains open, in spite of President Obama's pledge to close it. There are currently 149 detainees there. 79 have been recommended for transfer, but there are obstacles standing in the way. There are no plans to release the other 70, who are considered high-value detainees.

Savage is a Washington correspondent for The New York Times. He covers presidential power and national security legal policy matters. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his 2007 reporting for The Boston Globe on presidential signing statements. Charlie Savage, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

CHARLIE SAVAGE: Thank you for having me back.

GROSS: Both of the journalists who were beheaded by ISIS were dressed in orange, like the orange uniforms the prisoners in Gitmo have to wear. What has Gitmo come to symbolize to Islamist groups?

SAVAGE: Well, it's less to Islamic groups I think, than to the Muslim world in general, as well as to non-Muslims but who are sort of civil liberties-minded people. I think for a long time Guantanamo has been a symbol of early post-9/11 Bush administration war on terror policies, in which prisoners were held without trial - who are still of course being held without trial today - but were also tortured. And the early photographs out of Guantanamo, which were actually not even taken by reporter or journalist, but were taken by the military and distributed, of those first prisoners arriving at Camp X-ray and lining up, kneeling before the fences in their bright orange prison garb have become sort of iconic images of a very aggressive response in the handling of prisoners taken in the war on terror under the Bush administration. Guantanamo continues to remain open, despite President Obama's efforts to close it. Most of the prisoners actually don't wear orange anymore, only those who disobey the rules. But I think the image around the world remains that orange jumpsuits equals Guantanamo. Guantanamo Orange is even a phrase you hear sometimes. You see protesters wearing orange jumpsuits and I think that ISIS was trying to exploit those sentiments when it dressed the two journalists in orange before beheading them.

GROSS: So as you say, President Obama has pledged to close Gitmo and last year he pledged to revive his efforts to close Gitmo. And he's acknowledged that it's become an anti-American symbol. Has his pledge to close Gitmo been lip service, or has he really actively been trying to close it?

SAVAGE: Well, he's been actively trying, but in - sort of in fits and starts that then go quiet. Basically there's two buckets of people there - there's the people the U.S. government doesn't have an interest in holding but is having trouble getting rid of because they come from troubled areas, and there's the people the government wants to hold onto, just somewhere else. And early in his first administration, the State Department under a diplomat named Dan Fried ran around the world and found new homes for a lot of the people in the bucket they wanted to get rid of. And then Congress put in some fairly severe restrictions on conditions that had to be met before a transfer could occur and also barred the transfer into the U.S. And that basically killed the transfer of low-level prisoners for two years - 2011 through the end of 2012 - and no one was moving and Obama still sort of said that it was his policy, but it was clearly not the priority. And in fact, they reassigned Dan Fried to the State Department and didn't replace him. So there was no one even, you know, actively working on it at a high level anymore. And then last year there was a tremendously widespread hunger strike at the prison to protest the fact that they had sort of been forgotten. And that prompted Obama to say, this is crazy, we've got to resolve this situation. And he appointed a new diplomat, Cliff Sloan, at the State Department to revive that effort. And they've been working on whittling down that population again. And there was a surge at the end of 2013 where about 10 or 11 prisoners who were low-level and on this sort of recommended for transfer list for years, in fact got out. And it looked like momentum was picking up. But this calendar year, 2014, it has slowed to an absolute crawl again. There's no doubting that it's faltered.

GROSS: There is a fear of what happens when you release these detainees. And in fact, some of them who have been released in the past later engaged in militant activity. What you know about that?

SAVAGE: During the Bush administration - the Bush administration brought, you know, 700-plus detainees to Guantanamo and only about 240 were left when Obama took office. So quite a few came and left under the Bush administration in part because it also was trying to close the place. And it also had these sort of large deals with certain countries, like most of the Saudi detainees went back to Saudi Arabia under Bush in sort of one fell swoop. And some of them, they were supposed to go through a rehabilitation program and some of them - it didn't take, right? And they ended up going down to Yemen or going to fight elsewhere. Many of them ended up living quietly, but a few didn't. And the Obama administration has had a much more granular, detailed inner agency process for reviewing each detainee as an individual and sorting them into those recommended for transfer or not. Obama, I believe, has transferred 83 and of those, five supposedly have participated in terrorist or insurgent activity after their release and two more are suspected of. So of the Obama bunch, 83 were released and five - let's take it at its face value - participated in terrorism or insurgence activity, or maybe as many as seven. Of course, that means the bulk of them are living quiet lives. But there's no doubt there is a risk each time; that it may not take just as when someone gets out of prison for ordinary crime, there's a risk that they may do something again in the future.

And so this is sort of overlaying this discussion of, if we have these guys already, shouldn't we just keep holding onto them, even if the bulk of them may not be a problem in the future? I think it creates a certain political or bureaucratic impediment. It now takes an affirmative decision by a particular government official to let them go. And under provisions by - enacted by Congress - that official is the Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel. And that means that, you know, if there's a 5 percent chance or whatever it is - 7 percent chance that any particular detainee may get into trouble afterwards and kill someone, let's say - there is someone who you can trace it back and see their name and their signature on the papers, saying, I agree it's in our interest to let this person go. And that creates a tremendous amount of bureaucratic risk aversion. You know, no one wants to be the person who let the detainee go that causes a problem later. And so that's where we get to some of these tremendous difficulties.

GROSS: The Obama administration is pulling out American troops from Afghanistan. And that war - the American part of that war in Afghanistan - is supposed to officially end next year. What legal questions does that raise about the detainees in Gitmo who are detainees from that war in Afghanistan after 9/11?

SAVAGE: The government is clearly bracing for - they know it's coming; a new wave of habeas corpus lawsuits by the lawyers representing the detainees at Guantanamo who will make the case that that war, at least, is over. And that means it's time to send home the prisoners of war. And the government - we already know what the government's argument will be. They will say, well, we may be done with our war in Afghanistan, but we're not done with the war against al-Qaida and its associated forces - that is disconnected from the chunk of real estate that is Afghanistan. It's, in multiple places around the world, especially ungoverned spaces like parts of Yemen and Somalia and so forth. And that war continues and so we continue to have the legal authority to hold these people without trial if we want to, or if we don't have a place to send them. But it's clear that the legal pressures are mounting and in fact, earlier this year, Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer - in a very unusual move - appended to an order denying relief to a certain detainee. Commentary, sort of providing a roadmap for future litigation and saying, you know, the Supreme Court has never been asked to decide whether the law or the Constitution limits the duration of indefinite detention without trial in this war, in this conflict. And so that's an open question that is becoming more urgent as the years keep passing.

GROSS: So usually when prisoners of war are released there's a peace treaty signed; the war is officially over. It's unlikely we'll have a peace treaty with al-Qaida. So I mean, theoretically, the al-Qaida detainees could be there forever.

SAVAGE: That's right. That's sort of one of the most uncomfortable elements about applying laws of war that were written for 19th and 20th century-style conflicts - armed conflicts between nation states - to this different kind of war, as President Bush once called it. A war against a transnational network of loosely affiliated terrorists who all sort of raise the al-Qaida banner or put that bumper sticker on what they're doing, but aren't really organized in a way in which you can have a president or a king at the end of the day say, OK, we are all going to stop fighting now - and the war ends and prisoners of war are repatriated. There can't be such a thing in this war. And that raises this uncomfortable question because the idea of holding prisoners of war until the end of hostilities, without trials because they haven't committed crimes; they're just members of the enemy force, is supposed to be a humanitarian one. It's supposed to prevent armies from slaughtering their enemies when they come into their power to prevent them from being a risk in the future. But, this war may never end and that suggests that what we're talking about instead could be life sentence without trial for simply being a member, or deemed a member, of this organization.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Charlie Savage. He's a Washington correspondent for The New York Times. He has reported several times from Gitmo and frequently reported about Gitmo. He has an article this week called "Decaying Guantanamo Defies Closing Plans."

Let's take a short break and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR and if you're just joining us, my guest is Charlie Savage. He's a Washington correspondent for The New York Times. He's reported extensively about Guantanamo and has reported several times from Gitmo. His article this week in the Times is called "Decaying Guantanamo Defies Closing Plans." In your article, you report that based on the many interviews you did for this story, you found a split is emerging between State Department officials who appear eager to move toward President Obama's goal of closing Gitmo and some Pentagon officials who say they share that ambition, but they're more wary about releasing low-level detainees. Can you talk about that split?

SAVAGE: So the State Department has a diplomat named Cliff Sloan who was appointed last year by President Obama as part of his efforts to revive this closure effort. And he has been going around the world, he has a Defense Department counterpart named Paul Lewis and they've been talking to countries about potential deals to repatriate or more likely, resettle those 79 detainees the United States doesn't want to keep holding and who are recommend for transfer, for the most part, four years ago. And so he's been coming up with these deals. In January for example, the president of Uruguay offered to take six of these the hard-to-repatriate detainees and resettle them in Uruguay. And Afghanistan wants to take the four remaining Afghans who are approved for release back. And Mauritania wants to take its remaining detainee who's on that list back. And there's other sort of deals like that in the works. And so they then develop a set of security assurances with those countries that would take the detainees in, which usually involves monitoring them and not letting them travel outside the country. And they bring those deals to the Pentagon because under the transfer restrictions imposed by Congress, as I mentioned, the secretary of defense must determine whether a particular transfer is a good idea. And so it's clear that Secretary Hagel is cautious and some of his advisers, including General Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, are more cautious when they're examining these deals about things like whether the country that has offered to take these men in really can live up to the security promises it's making. And it's understandable why because it's Secretary Hagel who's signing the paper and who's making the final decision so that if something does go wrong, it's him where the buck will stop for having letting that person go. But the upshot has been that in the calendar year 2014 only one low-level detainee has left Guantanamo. These other deals are just sort of dying on the vine and he waited so long on the Uruguay offer I mentioned that came last January - and the details were all worked out by March - that by the time he was ready to move this summer on it, the president of Uruguay no longer wanted to move forward with it, at least for now because his own presidential election season had gotten too close. And so what had been sort of a momentum-building prospect that had inspired other South American countries to express interest, evidently, in doing likewise instead has stalled out.

GROSS: So that's an example of why the low-level detainees who the government has recommended for transfer have still been difficult to move out of Gitmo. But there's a different set of problems with the high-level detainees - the detainees who are still considered to be an active threat. And what are the issues facing them and what to do with them if Gitmo was closed?

SAVAGE: So there's 70 detainees of the 149 that the government is not trying to release. They are - 10 of them have been charged for convicted in a military commission and these are the famous ones, like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed; people who are actually tied to a specific terrorist attack, in his case 9/11. And then 60 of them have not been charged but are still deemed too dangerous to release, based on an individualized review of you know, what they say and how they behave in the prison and so forth.

So for Guantanamo to close, even if the government were to get rid of the 79 low-level detainees, it would still have to do something with these other 70. And President Obama's plan, since he doesn't want to release those who haven't been charged but are deemed dangerous, is to bring them to one or more military prisons in the United States where, he says, you know, look, we've already - we're all holding tons of terrorists. In Florence - the Supermax prison. We had tons of prisoners of war during World War II on American soil. We can do that again and at least the optics will change, which is Guantanamo itself will close. It will be sort of starting over with a blank slate or a fresh slate. And secondly, it would just be dramatically less expensive because Guantanamo's exorbitantly expensive.

But he can't bring anyone to the United States because part of the restrictions imposed by Congress after he became president were to bar the transfer of any detainee to the United States for any purpose - not for prosecution, not because there's a medical emergency and not for continued detention at a military prison on domestic soil.

So he would need Congress to change that law - although he's raised some questions about its constitutionality - for part two of his plan to close the prison to work. And so far at least, especially House Republicans have been - expressed no interest in changing that law. In fact, have expressed open hostility to his Guantanamo closure plans at all and say that in fact new prisoners should be brought there and it should just be revived.

GROSS: So the detainees who've been approved for transfer but are still in Gitmo, what legal rights, if any, do they have? They've been approved for transfer and yet they're being indefinitely detained.

SAVAGE: That's right. Well, so you know, so an important sort of nuance to understand about this group is - and sometimes critics of Guantanamo sort of conflate being recommended for transfer with being innocent, with being cleared, as if they were being held by mistake. And there were some number of people in the mass that were brought to Guantanamo by the Bush administration who genuinely were just not part of al-Qaida and were there by mistake. And most famously, there was a group of Chinese Uyghurs who just were not America's enemy but were stuck there because we couldn't send them back to China.

This group is not that group. Since 2008, the detainees have had the right to habeas corpus lawsuits and they've had the right therefore, to go to court and say to the judge, I'm being held by mistake; you got the wrong guy - I was just there as a missionary or a case of mistaken identity, I'm not part of al-Qaida, never was. Can I go home, please?

And judges have looked at the evidence and decided whether to order them freed or allow them to continue to be detained. And so the group that is there now are legally detainable, according to our court system because they are in fact members of the enemy force, whether they're low-level or high-level. But the ones that are low-level, the government may have a legal right to hold them, but an interagency task force of national security agencies unanimously decided that there was no actual reason to keep paying this enormous expense and detaining them year after year because they were so low-level there's not much of a threat. Or maybe they're just - you know, have broken with al-Qaida and we believe them, or so forth. So you know, 10, 12 years after they're captured, do we need to keep spending $3 million a year to hold this particular guy? Or, if we can send him to a place that will keep an eye on him is that a better outcome for both sides? So the government has the right, legally, to keep holding them, say the courts, but it may not want to keep holding them. And that is the group that we're talking about.

GROSS: So the 79 detainees who have been cleared for transfer - have they been charged with anything? Do we know why they're there?

SAVAGE: No. So only 10 detainees of the 149 have been charged or convicted with a crime.

GROSS: Charlie Savage will be back in the second half of the show. He's a Washington correspondent for The New York Times.

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Back with Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Charlie Savage, a Washington correspondent for the New York Times. We're talking about Guantanamo, the military prison holding detainees captured during the war on terror. Savage has reported extensively about Gitmo, he made his first trip there in 2003 and was most recently there last month. He wrote an article published in Sunday's New York Times about how Gitmo was decaying and why it remains open in spite of President Obama's pledge to close it. Let's talk about your trip to Guantanamo in August. You write the infrastructure is decaying, these buildings were never intended for long-term use. Describe some of the conditions that you saw.

SAVAGE: Sure. Well, so I've been going to Guantanamo since 2003 and it's always interesting to go back and sort of see how things are changing. When I first went down there all the prisoners were housed in this four block-area called Camp Delta - which was sort of open-air cellblocks and then one chunk of bunks and Delta is now totally empty, they still use it for like detainee health clinic and they house some books and so forth. But the detainees aren't there any more, and this is sort of a ghost prison. In the original Camp X-Ray, the famous one where everyone was brought in 2002 with this kennel like cages is overrun by vines and wildlife - boa constrictors and banana rats, which are these giant bar marmots. And the detainees are for the most part are in concrete walled building that were built in '04 and '06 called Camp 5 and Camp 6. Which themselves are in pretty good shape, although the roof was leaking. But as the sort of surrounding infrastructure is really falling apart. So the - a lot of the troops are housed in an area called Camp America, which are these sort of ramshackle shacks, six people to a room, bad ventilation, there's no attached bathrooms and it's a - not typically what you would have guards or you know, military forces housed at at a base outside of a war zone. And the industrial kitchen, which was actually built in the 90s when there was sort of migrant operations going on at Guantanamo, is a total wreck. The steel supports that hold the building to the ground floor have corroded in the harsh climate over the last 20, 30, years. There's - you look up and there's holes in the roof and the head cook tells me that they have to put tarps over the dry goods when it rains because the water comes in. And it's clear the military is afraid that just one strong storm will blow that thing into the ocean and then they won't have a facility to cook for the detainees or for the guard force.

GROSS: In your latest article about Gitmo in the New York Times you write about the quality of the medical facilities in Gitmo and the problems with that. You know, as the detainees age and the longer they're at Gitmo - you know, the more health problems they will have and - give us the example of the detainee who had a heart problem and needed a stent. How is that dealt with?

SAVAGE: So, as I mentioned earlier the congress has banned bringing a detainee into the United States for any reason and that any reason includes health emergencies. But Guantanamo has a sort of small-town type hospital on it - the sort of place that would serve a few thousand people and there's a medical clinic they've built for the detainees that has, you know, the ability to do some basic things. But it's not like being near a city with sophisticated healthcare equipment and specialists readily available for anything that might arise. And they asked other Latin American countries, would you take a detainee and treat him if there was some problem, if there was a health emergency? And they'll just basically weren't interested in doing that. And so they're stuck with this situation where when there's a need for more intensive healthcare. If it was a U.S. soldier who had that problem they'd just put him on a plane and take him to Jacksonville, but if there's a detainee they can't do that. And so their solution within the restrictions Congress has imposed is to import both equipment and specialists as needed, which of course takes some time and raises the question about what would happen in emergencies. A few years ago, there was a detainee who needed a stent placed in a coronary artery and then they brought in a mobile cardiac catheterization lab and then the detainee refused the procedure. I'm not quite clear if it's the same lab or not, but eventually they had this lab sitting there in case some other detainee needed it, and none did and it sat outside year after year and decayed. And now this million dollar piece of equipment's just not made to exist in a place like Guantanamo for very long. Just a couple weeks ago, they brought in - had to bring in a laser lithotripsy machine to take care of a kidney stone of detainee had, which is an outpatient procedure in the United States, but because they had to bring in this large device and the specialist, it became quite an endeavor, both logistically and expensively.

So it's problem and it's one of the contributing factors to the huge infrastructure bill that the Southern Command, which oversees Guantanamo, says needs to be invested if Guantanamo's going to remain open - rebuilding housing for the troops, consolidating and enhancing medical facilities, rebuilding one of the camps which reporters are not allowed to see, called Camp 7, where the high-value detainees like Khalid Shaikh Mohammed are held and apparently is built on unstable ground, causing the floors to buckle. South Com has asked for $200 million to build all of this stuff there, which is awkward because the official policy is any minute now it's going to close.

GROSS: Right. So this is really an issue for we taxpayers because we're paying a lot of money to keep Gitmo open.

SAVAGE: That's right. This year the taxpayers are paying more than $400 million to operate Guantanamo. So when you do the math, it works out to - you know, you divide the current bill by the 149 detainees who are there and it's nearly $3 million a detainee. And if they were able to get rid of these 79 low-level ones they're trying to get rid of, and so it went down to a population of about 70 or so - of course that would almost double because most of the costs are fixed. So $6 million, potentially, a detainee.

By comparison, the Bureau of Prisons says it costs about $30,000 a year to house an inmate in a maximum-security prison in the United States. So it gives you an idea of just how expensive it is to have several thousand soldiers down there operating a prison in this remote location, where everything has to be barged in or flown in. It's very expensive to build things. It's very expensive to keep people there. It's very expensive to repair things.

GROSS: So you were in Gitmo in August. Tell us what you saw of living conditions there and whether living conditions for the detainees have gotten any better or worse since you started going to report from Gitmo.

SAVAGE: Oh - well, since I first going in 2003, there's no doubt that they've gotten better. They're in climate-controlled buildings now and it's very hot in August in Guantanamo; I'm sure you can imagine. And before, in '03, they were in these open-air cages with huge fans that were sort of trying to keep things cool. But they were much more primitive in all kinds of ways.

The last time I was there, before this visit, was in April of 2013 and at that point there had just been this huge hunger strike protest which had caused Obama to turn his attention back to trying to get the low-level people out at least and close the place.

And the guards' force had raided the prison just a week before I'd gotten there; less than a week and pushed all those who were living in communal bunk areas into single cell lockdown because they had been covering up video cameras and so forth and they weren't quite sure what was happening in there. So that was a sort of extreme moment in the prison's history. Things have calmed down quite a lot in the past year because, at least at the end of 2013, people started moving out again. And I think that caused a lot of the prisoners to sort of think, well, maybe if I keep my head down, I can get out some day, too. Whereas they had sort of lost hope and were in despair in 2013.

So most of them are now back in communal conditions. And so if you walk through camp six, which is one of these concrete-walled buildings they've built down there, you can look at them through two-way glass or through surveillance monitors. They're sort of this two-tiered cellblocks surrounding a central, metal table - has been bolted. There's 22 cells, but only about 20 detainees in these cellblocks because they use a couple of the cells as, like, a pantry or a place to store books. And the detainees are here 'cause these the ones that comply with the rules. They're wearing white or brown, not orange. And they eat their meals communally. The guards just sort of wheel in a tray-full of food, and they can eat when they want to. And they can wander around most of the day, can go out to the recreation yard, can watch TV, pray together. And so it's obvious that that's sort of a better way to be than in single-cell lockdown.

The ones who break the rules mostly live in camp five, where they live in single cells. They're these sort of six-by-eight cells where they have a bunk and have a toilet and a small sink. And they get looked at through the window every one to three minutes by a guard to make sure they're not doing something. And they have these sort of - these trays that get pushed back and forth through their door when they want a bottle of water something. And they have a very limited out of access to recreation yards and so forth. But they can at least still talk to each other.

What I'm not allowed to see - no reporter's allowed to see - is camp seven, which they are very secretive about. They won't even tell you where it is. Although, if you look on Google Earth, there it is. You know where it is. That's where the 15 former CIA prisoners, like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, live. No reporter has ever been in there. This is the place where supposedly the floor's buckling and they're going to stay there for the long term. They need to spend $50 million on that alone to build a new one.

GROSS: Gitmo has a prison library. The detainees who have been obeying the rules at Gitmo are allowed to watch television. What have you been able to learn about the books and the TV shows that are popular among Gitmo detainees?

SAVAGE: So the detainees vary widely. There are some detainees who speak English and others that don't. There are some detainees who like Western culture and want to watch a Harry Potter movie or read a Harry Potter book or whatever and others who don't. And one of the ways in which the communal cell blocks are divided, those are the ones where detainees who obey the rules may live and pray and eat together, is that there are some where people would be - don't want to see women who aren't covered up on the TV in the middle of the room and others who are - they've fine with that. And so they're sort of further subdivided by their conservatism.

I'm kind of fascinated by the Guantanamo library. It has about 20,000 books, and it's part of this regular tour - sort of like a small branch library. It's got a few rooms, and they're divided up. And the detainees can't go there and browse the stacks. Instead, the library personnel put a bunch of books in bins and then cart them around to the cellblocks. And for a while, they had a budget and they were of a few thousand dollars a year. They were buying more books. I think that budget is gone now, but people can still donate books through the Red Cross.

The most popular books are said to be religious books, maybe not surprisingly. But they have a full roomful of Western books that you or I would be quite familiar with, ranging from Captain American comic books to "The Hunger Games" or "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo," or things of that ilk, as well as nonfiction books. Apparently nature books and nature magazines with photographs of ocean or mountain or forest scenes are quite popular, maybe because they never see nature, as one of their lawyers told me.

I actually made - just as a sort of a side project - a Tumblr, a blog, in which I took pictures of books in the detainee library, and reporters at other outlets who are colleagues of mine sort of joined in on that project. It's at And it - people seem to really be taken with it because it's so familiar and yet so alien at the same time. We see these books that, you know, we have read or that might be on your kid's shelf, except it's circulating among detainees at Guantanamo Bay.

GROSS: Well, Charlie Savage, thank you so much for talking with us.

SAVAGE: Thank you for having me.

GROSS: Charlie Savage is a Washington correspondent for The New York Times.

Coming up, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews a new album by tenor saxophonist Mark Turner, who Kevin describes as a thinking person's improviser. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.