WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama said Tuesday that he’d redouble efforts on a failed first-term campaign promise to close the prison for terrorism suspects at the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
“Guantanamo is not necessary to keep America safe,” Obama said. “It is expensive. It is inefficient. It hurts us, in terms of our international standing. It lessens cooperation with our allies on counter-terrorism efforts. It is a recruitment tool for extremists. It needs to be closed.”
His remarks came after 100 of the 166 detainees at the facility embarked on hunger strikes. The inmates are being force-fed despite concerns from the American Medical Association that the practice violates core ethical values of the medical profession.
“I don’t want these individuals to die,” the president said. “Obviously, the Pentagon is . . . trying to manage the situation as best as they can.”
Obama said he’d directed a team to review the issue before he’d ask Congress again to shutter the facility. But the president provided no details on how he might do that. The White House said later Tuesday that Obama is considering reappointing a senior State Department official to focus on repatriating or transferring detainees who can be sent to their home countries or third countries and better implementing an existing review of inmates, which has not moved quickly enough, said Caitlin Hayden, spokeswoman for the National Security Council.
In a wide-ranging news conference at the White House, Obama also fielded questions for 45 minutes about the use of chemical weapons in Syria, the actions of federal investigators before the bombings April 15 at the Boston Marathon, the across-the-board spending cuts that went into effect in March and his coming trip to Mexico and Costa Rica.
Of them, Guantanamo is the issue that’s frustrated him the longest, ever since he campaigned for his first term with the promise to close the facility that President George W. Bush opened after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
In one of his first actions as president, Obama issued an executive order that called for the facility to be shuttered within a year. But he faced stiff opposition by lawmakers of both parties on Capitol Hill, in part because of concerns over where detainees would be transferred. He stopped actively pushing for the closure and in 2011 drew criticism from human rights organizations by signing a law that placed restrictions on transferring inmates from the facility.
Obama said Guantanamo might have been needed after the 2001 terrorists attacks but that that was no longer the situation. He said justice has been served in other terrorism cases, including the attempted bombings in Times Square and on a Detroit-bound plane, in regular courts and prisons across the nation.
“The idea that we would still maintain forever a group of individuals who have not been tried, that is contrary to who we are,” he said. “We’re now over a decade out. We should be wiser. We should have more experience in how we prosecute terrorists.”
About 800 prisoners _ some considered enemy combatants _ have been held at one time at Guantanamo. Many have been cleared for transfer by the Obama administration but haven’t been transferred, in part because some of them have nowhere to go.
“I’m going to go back at this,” the president said. “I’ve asked my team to review everything that’s currently being done in Guantanamo, everything that we can do administratively, and I’m going to re-engage with Congress to try to make the case that this is not something that’s in the best interest of the American people.”
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard P. "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., said: "The president faces bipartisan opposition to closing Guantanamo Bay’s detention center because he has offered no alternative plan regarding the detainees there, nor a plan for future terrorist captures."
"Congress has not been idle on detention issues," McKeon added. "For the past two years, our committee has worked with our Senate counterparts to ensure that the certifications necessary to transfer detainees overseas are reasonable. The administration has never certified a single transfer. Contrary to what President Obama has implied, there are no restrictions on releasing detainees who have won their habeas cases in federal court."
Anthony Romero, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said Obama should "order the secretary of defense to start certifying for transfer detainees who have been cleared, which is more than half the Guantanamo population."
Of the 166 captives in Cuba, 86 were approved years ago for conditional release or transfer to other nations by a task force that gave vetoes to the CIA, the FBI and the Justice, State and Defense departments.
Other advocacy groups offered suggestions on what Obama could do immediately: Appoint a senior aide to manage the closure and order the secretary of defense to start certifying for transfer of detainees who’ve been cleared.
“The president must demonstrate immediate, tangible progress toward the closure of Guantanamo or the men who are on hunger strike will die, and he will be ultimately responsible for their deaths,” said a statement by the Center for Constitutional Rights, which represents detainees.
Some lauded his comments.
“The writing is on the wall,” said Daphne Eviatar, senior counsel at Human Rights First. “It’s time for the failed Guantanamo experiment to end and for our nation to return to the values that have kept us strong.”
Carol Rosenberg of The Miami Herald contributed to this report.
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