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.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) took umbrage at Obama’s claims from a congressional point of view.
“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,” McKeon said.
“For years, Congress has encouraged the president to develop a comprehensive detention policy. In the administration’s failure to do so, they have removed lawful options from our counterterrorism arsenal. ”
McKeon added that lawmakers have not been “idle” at trying to chart a correct path for the detention center’s future.
“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 chairman said. “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.”
Forty-six dangerous detainees have been flagged for indefinite detention. Eighty-six of the current detainees at Gitmo have been approved for transfer to their home countries or another nation willing to take them under strict security conditions.
That counts out the country where the majority of those 86 are from — Yemen — because of the administration’s freeze on transfers there imposed after underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s botched 2009 attempt to blow up an airliner. The plot was reportedly hatched by Yemeni cleric Anwar al-Awlaki.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) sent a letter last week to National Security Director Tom Donilon asking the administration to “renew its efforts” to transfer the detainees — and rethink the Yemen policy.
“The fact that so many detainees have now been held at Guantanamo for over a decade and their belief that there is still no end in sight for them is a reason there is a growing problem of more and more detainees on a hunger strike,” she wrote. “This week, monitors from the International Committee of the Red Cross who travelled to Guantanamo recently told my staff that the level of desperation among the detainees is ‘unprecedented’ in their view.”
“Although [al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula] still has a strong presence in Yemen, I believe it would be prudent to re-visit the decision to halt transfers to Yemen and assess whether President Hadi’s government, with appropriate assistance, would be able to securely hold detainees in Sana’a,” Feinstein continued. “Do you believe that we can work with Yemen to develop an appropriate framework for the return of all 56 Yemenis previously recommended for transfer?”
Feinstein offered her assistance to help find new homes for the “cleared” detainees.
But even some cleared detainees who have been relocated have scuttled off to temporary locations with no permanent move in sight.
Six Uighurs who were transferred to the island of Palau as a temporary solution in 2009 told a Toronto Star reporter in February that they’ve been given no hope of a permanent home as U.S. support to the impoverished nation for taking the detainees has run out.
The Chinese Muslims can’t go home for fear of what the People’s Republic would do to them, but they’re also not allowed passports to leave the island.
Feinstein noted that the desk of the State Department’s Special Envoy for the Closure of Guantanamo, who was helping the Uighurs, has been cleared out and the Obama administration has no intention of filling Ambassador Daniel Fried’s post.
“I urge the administration to fill this vacant position or to appoint another senior Administration official with the specific responsibility to achieve the conditions necessary to close Guantanamo,” she wrote.