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No decision yet on Guantánamo detainees, Napolitano says

At a Monitor breakfast, the Homeland Security secretary also comments on border and immigration issues. But when asked if she's on the shortlist for the impending Supreme Court vacancy, she avoided the question.

By Staff writer / May 19, 2009

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano was the featured guest at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast at the Capitol Hilton Hotel in Washington Tuesday.

Michael Bonfigli

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Washington

No final decisions have been made as to whether some terror suspects held at the US prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, will be brought to the United States if the detention facility closes at the end of the year, said Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast Tuesday.

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A cabinet-level interagency group is reviewing the cases of Guantánamo detainees one by one. The Department of Homeland Security obviously is taking part in this scrutiny, Secretary Napolitano said.

"One of the reasons we are there is to bring to the table what would need to be done should a particular detainee be brought to the homeland, to make sure public-safety issues are planned for," Napolitano said at the breakfast.

President Obama has vowed that Guantánamo will be shuttered by January 2010, but he is running into opposition in Congress from members of both parties about the possible release of current Guantánamo prisoners on US soil.

In particular, lawmakers are exercised about 17 Uighurs – Turkish Muslims from western China – who were captured in Pakistan and Afghanistan in 2001 and have been held at Guantánamo ever since.

China has demanded them back, but the US has declined to extradite them. Uighurs in China claim they are an oppressed minority.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates has recently acknowledged that some of these Uighurs may be released in the US. That has fed a broader not-in-my-backyard congressional movement on Guantánamo detainees.

The House last week passed a war spending bill that forbids Guantánamo releases domestically. The Senate is now considering its version of the measure.

Napolitano declined to respond to questions about the Uighurs' fate. "That would be getting into decisions that have not been made and material that is classified," she said.

On other issues, Napolitano said that she is traveling to Canada next week to discuss issues pertaining to the US northern border.

In her few months in office, the Homeland Security chief has angered Canadians with statements that appear to equate the risks of the northern and southern US boundaries. Her trip will be an attempt both to smooth feelings and study genuine mutual problems, she said.

For years, the US has devoted more border enforcement efforts to the south than the north. That is not going to completely change, given the nature of the illegal immigration problem.

The DHS needs to be sensitive to the back-and-forth nature of border areas, Napolitano said. "Nonetheless, there are issues about the security of that border, in part because Canada has different rules for who it allows to come to its country than we do," she said.

Napolitano, who was governor of Arizona prior to her confirmation as DHS chief, also said that the federal government is expanding an effort begun in the Bush administration to check the immigration status of people held in local jails.

This effort – known as Secure Communities – aims to push database technology and training out where it can do the most good, according to Napolitano.

"The immigration issue is so large you have to create priorities," she said.

Napolitano, a lawyer by training, has been rumored as a possible replacement for retiring Supreme Court justice David Souter. Asked if she is on the shortlist, Napolitano looked at her breakfast plate, and said, "these are good eggs; that is all I am going to say."

As to the federal government's warnings about a possible H1N1 swine-flu epidemic, Napolitano defended the warnings spread by herself and other US officials, saying, "overall, the federal government handled it well."

Advice changed as the US learned more about the virus in question, she said. Now DHS and other departments will have time to plan for any possible flu resurgence in the fall.

"For example, what is the status of plans for a flu pandemic? Is the private sector ... really prepared for a high rate of absenteeism? What do you do with hourly workers who are absolutely dependent on an hourly wage? We are going to work these problems over the summer," said Napolitano.