- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The District of Columbia has approached the Justice Department about security concerns arising from the housing of more than 10 suspected narcoterrorists in its jail - concerns that foreshadow problems the Obama administration might face if it brings Guantanamo Bay detainees to the United States for trial.

D.C. Attorney General Peter J. Nickles brought up the narcoterrorists when asked during an interview Tuesday about the prospect of detainees from the U.S. Naval Base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, being brought to the District for trial.

Although the attorney general did not directly link the District’s situation with the decisions facing the federal government, he stressed the confinement concerns that even the lower-level suspects have placed on city officials.

“What I’m wrestling with right now with the director of the Department of Corrections and with the court is how adequately to deal with what is a growing number of these individuals that have some roots in Colombia,” Mr. Nickles said. “I just leave it that I’m concerned about it and that we’re taking appropriate steps to be sure that we don’t have any problems.”

In a wide-ranging interview with editors and reporters at The Washington Times, Mr. Nickles also addressed the District’s prospects for getting voting representation in Congress, the state of the city’s emergency medical services and the debate over same-sex marriage in the nation’s capital.

He said the decision on gay marriage should be left to the D.C. Council and the mayor, instead of the voters. The council earlier this month passed legislation recognizing same-sex marriages performed in other jurisdictions, and the bill is seen as a precursor to permitting same-sex marriages to be performed in the city and a gauge of Congress’ reaction to the District’s actions.

“My own view is that this is a matter that the council should handle, that to get it into a referendum would bring out a lot of passions,” Mr. Nickles said. “And I think the kind of step-by-step approach that the council and mayor have been observing here is a wiser way to go, particularly when you have the Congress sitting over the District with plenary power.”

The District’s housing of paramilitary terrorists could serve as a prelude to difficulties the city and other jurisdictions would face if chosen to house and host trials for detainees released from Guantanamo Bay, which President Obama hopes to close by early 2010. Congressional lawmakers increasingly are calling on the president to show them a plan to deal with the terrorism suspects.

Mr. Nickles noted the security strain and complicated judicial issues even one detainee case would place on a court, and said Mr. Obama made “a mistake” in issuing a deadline for closing Guantanamo without a plan in place first.

Still, he said, D.C. officials would accept detainees if the president requested they do so.

“If he said he’d want us to do it, we’d do it,” Mr. Nickles said. “But I think I’d sit down with [U.S. Attorney General] Eric Holder … and say, ‘Now, let me ask you a few questions and see what the answers are here.’ ”

Mr. Nickles said he is not aware of any discussions between the Obama administration and the city about the District housing Guantanamo detainees. But he said an immediate concern is the city’s detainment of narcoterrorists - some with connections to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) - and that his office has met with Justice Department officials about how the suspects should be handled.

The attorney general said the city houses “more than 10” narcoterrorists extradited to the District after being arrested overseas or within the United States, largely on drug charges. Channing Phillips, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in the District, said his office is prosecuting “a few” who are accused of engaging in acts like taking Americans hostage in Colombia.

“Some of these individuals have connections to the FARC, some of them may be lower level, some of them are probably higher level,” Mr. Nickles said. “You put all those people together in one area and there could be mischief.”

Mr. Nickles also said a bill granting the District a vote in the House of Representatives - which has been stalled in that chamber by an amendment that would gut city gun control laws - is unlikely to move without Mr. Obama’s intervention.

In addition, he said workers with the District’s Fire and Emergency Medical Services need more training, but that tests taken last year by city paramedics simply aimed to identify weaknesses so officials could develop an improved training regimen.

The Times reported in April that scores of the District’s paramedics failed to meet the minimum national standard on written exams testing their medical knowledge or mishandled basic lifesaving procedures during videotaped assessments.

“Do I think more training is necessary? Yes,” Mr. Nickles said. “And I think the chief had in mind more training and targeted training in those areas where we are not doing as well as we should.”

The attorney general expressed a desire for improved relations between the D.C. Council and Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, but he said some council actions - like gutting the budget for the deputy mayor for education - make it “difficult” for the executive to accomplish his priorities.

He said Mr. Fenty, now in the third year of his term, is the same politician who knocked on the doors of residents on his way to winning all of the city’s 142 precincts in the 2006 mayoral election, despite recent criticisms that the mayor has grown arrogant as his bid for re-election approaches.

“I think he’s the same person,” Mr. Nickles said. “I think he’s more frustrated. He’s a young guy who wants to do things quickly.”

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