Sen. Dick Durbin on Guantanamo Bay

This is a partial transcript of "The Big Story With John Gibson," July 11, 2006, that has been edited for clarity.

JOHN GIBSON, HOST: The Bush administration has changed its policy on Guantanamo Bay, announcing Tuesday that all prisoners are entitled to protections under the Geneva Conventions. The move comes after the Supreme Court struck down military tribunals at Gitmo.

Tuesday the Senate Judiciary Committee began hearings on the issue. One member says we need to shut down Gitmo by the end of the year. He's Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin. The Senate Democratic whip just returned from a trip to Guantanamo Bay and he joins us now.

So Senator, the president, I think, has even said he would like to close Gitmo eventually. You say by the end of the year. What exactly would we do with those who are there if we are going to close the thing by the end of the year?

SEN. DICK DURBIN, D-ILL.: We have about 450 detainees there. About 120 or so would be sent back home to their homes, or countries of origin, according to the commander at the base.

A little over 300 then would have to be sent to another facility, possibly another military facility, maybe something in our federal system. But I think that would be a much better thing to do than to allow Guantanamo to continue.

And let me say first, the men and women who are serving there are doing a wonderful job. I think they are following the Geneva Convention; they're doing the right thing. It's a lot different than it was just a few years ago. But sadly, it is such a powerful negative image for the United States. I believe the detention facility there should be closed.

GIBSON: As a practical matter, can it be closed by in what amounts to just six months?

DURBIN: I think it can be. And I think when you talk about moving 300 people it is not out of the question that we will find room within our system for them to be held safely so that any that are a danger to the United States or to our troops will be safely guarded, maybe even more so than they are in Guantanamo, but also to make sure that those who continue to have intelligence value to the United States can be interrogated, but consistent with the Geneva Conventions. That's a point that came through loud and clear yesterday. I asked the chief interrogator, if we forced to you to follow the Geneva Conventions, what would change here. He said nothing. We are following them today. It's the most effective way to interrogate.

GIBSON: Senator, doesn't that make the president's point. Even though he said, well I'm not going to say that they fall under the Geneva Conventions. They were treated as if they did fall under the Geneva Conventions.

DURBIN: I can only speak to what I saw and that was yesterday. But if you look back to the FBI reports that have now been declassified and are now public, these FBI reports say that several years ago some terrible things were happening at Guantanamo. Interesting that one of the interrogators took me aside yesterday and said, Senator, I know what you are talking about. That's not happening anymore. We never want it to happen again. It was the wrong thing.

GIBSON: Do you think that there was a situation a couple years ago where virtually anyone running this country, feeling that we were under attack for terrorism, would have felt that they would feel rightfully that they had to take special measures to get information?

DURBIN: I'm sure some people felt that way but there were cooler minds that should have been listened to. Secretary of State Colin Powell argued against the position of the administration. He said that it was wrong for us to abandon the Geneva Conventions, that it would be unfair to our soldiers who were trained to follow them as a law. But Secretary Powell was ignored and others in the administration prevailed and they created exceptions to the Geneva Conventions, exceptions which they ultimately abandoned.

GIBSON: Senator, do you trust the countries that we would be sending these people back to, the 130 or so, to either keep them incarcerated or keep them under a good enough surveillance that we could trust them on the loose?

DURBIN: John, that's a very important question, and let me tell you that is what the commander at the base is facing. Over 100 that he would like to return to certain countries, he is not sure he can for the very reasons you mentioned. Will they be incarcerated? And if incarcerated, will they be treated humanely? So we are holding on to a lot of people who are no value to us from an intelligence viewpoint and maybe little danger to the United States for the very reason that you just mentioned.

GIBSON: Sen. Dick Durbin just returned from a fact-finding trip to Guantanamo Bay. Senator, thanks very much.

DURBIN: Thank you.

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