At a press conference marking 100 days into President Obama’s second term, few in the press corps expected him to bring up an unmet campaign promise from before his first term.
With 100 of the 166 inmates at Guantanamo Bay in the 12th week of a hunger strike, though, the long-forgotten vow of a novice senator aiming for the Oval Office was bound to rear its head.
Obama was asked if it’s “any surprise, really, that they would prefer death, rather than have no end in sight to their confinement.”
“Well, it is not a surprise to me that we’ve got problems in Guantanamo, which is why when I was campaigning in 2007 and 2008 and when I was elected in 2008, I said we need to close Guantanamo,” the president said.
“I continue to believe that we’ve got to close Guantanamo. I think, well, you know, I think it is critical for us to understand that Guantanamo is not necessary to keep America safe. 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,” he continued, sparking a host of online headlines that he suddenly had a bold renewed commitment to shut the prison camp.
Last month the Pentagon requested nearly $200 million for improvements for Guantanamo, including a new building to house high-level detainees such as professed 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and accused USS Cole mastermind Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri. Both al-Qaeda operatives are still in the process of pretrial motions that have been dragged out by their high-profile defense teams as much as the prosecution.
Obama pinned the blame for the camp still being open on the same hill where he pins most blame.
“Now, Congress determined that they would not let us close it. And despite the fact that there are a number of the folks who are currently in Guantanamo, who the courts have said could be returned to their country of origin or potentially a third country, I’m gonna go back at this. I’ve asked my team to review everything that’s currently being done in Guantanamo, everything that we can do administratively, and I’m gonna reengage with Congress to try to make the case that this is not something that’s in the best interest of the American people,” he said.
“And it’s not sustainable. I mean, the notion that we’re going to continue to keep over 100 individuals in a no-man’s land in perpetuity, even at a time when we’ve wound down the war in Iraq, we’re winding down the war in Afghanistan, and we’re having success defeating al-Qaeda’s core, we’ve kept the pressure up on all these trans-national terrorist networks.”
Obama claimed it was hard to make a case to close Gitmo to the American public because of an “out of sight, out of mind” mentality.
“And it’s easy to demagogue the issue. That’s what happened the first time this came up. I’m going to go back at it because I think it’s important,” he continued. “I don’t want these individuals to die. Obviously, the Pentagon is trying to manage the situation as best as they can.”
Before the hunger strike began, though, one member of Congress told PJM that he believes the administration is dragging out the tribunals because it hopes the inmates will die there — and let it avoid recriminations over indefinite detention and messy repercussions from either capital punishment or acquittal.
“I understand that in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, with the traumas that had taken place, why for a lot of Americans the notion was somehow that we had to create a special facility like Guantanamo and we couldn’t handle this in a normal, conventional fashion. I understand that reaction. But we’re now over a decade out. We should be wiser. We should have more experience in how we prosecute terrorists. And this is a lingering, you know, problem that is not gonna get better. It’s gonna get worse. It’s gonna fester,” Obama said.
“And so I’m gonna, as I said before, we’re — examine every option that we have administratively to try to deal with this issue, but ultimately we’re also gonna need some help from Congress. And I’m gonna ask some folks over there who, you know, care about fighting terrorism, but also care about who we are as a people to step up and help me on it.”
Amnesty International said in a statement that Obama “is right to recommit to closing Guantanamo,” but cautioned against more talk instead of action. Human Rights Watch called his comments “encouraging after his long silence on the issue.”
And HRW also called out the president on his finger-pointing at Congress.
“Though he blamed Congress for the problems at Guantanamo, there are actions he could have taken and can still take now to end indefinite detention there,” said Laura Pitter, counterterrorism adviser at Human Rights Watch. The group noted that every restriction on the transfer of detainees that originated in Congress was signed into law by the president.