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Torture and terror: Q&A on Guantanamo

President Obama is weighing how to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center in Cuba and what to do with about 240 detainees who remain. The Senate and House voted to deny funding to close the prison and objected to the inmates being transferred to U.S. soil. Here is a primer on the debate:

What is the Guantanamo Bay facility and why is it important?

The Guantanamo Bay detention camp, at a U.S. military base in Cuba, has been used to hold suspects that the U.S. thinks were involved with terrorists. Since 2001, an estimated 775 prisoners have moved through the facility, informally known as Gitmo. Of that group, about 420 have been released without charges and at least 70 were transferred to other nations.

The prison became a worldwide symbol of opposition to Bush administration policies and its use of coercive interrogation techniques, such as waterboarding, which simulates drowning. In addition, some detainees were tried under a military commission system, which defense lawyers and others called a violation of due process.

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On Wednesday, the Obama administration appeared poised to bring one detainee to New York for trial.

What has been Obama’s position?

As a candidate, Obama opposed the tribunals and condemned the Bush administration’s treatment of detainees. On Jan. 22, 2009, two days after his inauguration, Obama announced that he had signed an executive order to suspend the proceedings and that Guantanamo would be closed within a year.

That ended the dispute, right?

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Closing Guantanamo means having to figure out what to do with the detainees. Republicans repeatedly have opposed closing the facility, arguing that it is the best place to house detainees awaiting judicial review.

Republicans and Democrats say they have concerns about relocating detainees within the U.S., and foreign governments are reluctant to take them. In a rare rebuff to Obama, Congress shot down his plans and denied funding to close Guantanamo.

What are the politics of the disputes?

In general, Republicans argue that Obama is soft on security, a frequent theme they used during the presidential campaign. They contend that Obama is unwilling to use tough questioning techniques to get information and that he ignores the danger of moving terrorism suspects to U.S. soil.

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The White House counters that such techniques have not been shown to get accurate information because people lie to end the pain. Obama also has argued that “enhanced interrogation techniques” violate American values.

What of the military commissions?

Though he condemned the tribunals, Obama said he would allow them to continue if some of the constitutional problems were resolved. He called for correcting what he considered abuses, such as barring hearsay evidence.

Obama also changed direction on a related issue, the release of photos that show the alleged abuse of detainees by U.S. troops. Originally, Obama agreed to release the photos but changed his mind at the request of U.S. military leaders, who feared the images would incite anger in the Muslim world. The courts so far have backed the release of the photos.

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Has Obama’s position on the photos created political problems?

Liberals have been unhappy with Obama’s decision, but polls show that most people support the president in keeping the photos from the public.

But his original decision has given the GOP an issue. Former Vice President Dick Cheney has taken the lead in condemning Obama’s security policies. Cheney is scheduled to give a speech today.

Who else has been caught in the fallout?

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House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) ignited a firestorm when she accused the CIA of misleading her on interrogation issues. She said the CIA did not tell her during a September 2002 briefing that it was already using waterboarding. The CIA says it did tell her.

Pelosi was the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee at the time. Republicans accuse her of hypocrisy, saying that she condoned the technique then but now criticizes it.

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michael.muskal@latimes.com

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