President Barack Obama vows anew to shut Guantánamo prison


McClatchy News Service

President Barack Obama said Tuesday that he would redouble efforts on a failed first-term campaign promise to close the prison for war-on-terror suspects at the U.S. Navy base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

“Guantánamo 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 counterterrorism efforts. It is a recruitment tool for extremists. It needs to be closed.”

His remarks came as 100 of the 166 detainees at the facility continue a hunger strike. Twenty-one of 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 had directed a team to review the issue before he would ask Congress again to shutter the facility. But the president provided no details on how he might do that. White House officials didn’t respond to additional questions.

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 those issues, Guantánamo is the one that has frustrated Obama 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 terror 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 Guantánamo 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 over the past 11 years at Guantánamo. Many have been cleared for transfer by the Obama administration but are still incarcerated, 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 Guantánamo, everything that we can do administratively, and I’m going to reengage 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 Guantánamo 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. 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 Guantánamo 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, including the appointment of a senior aide to manage the closure.

“The president must demonstrate immediate, tangible progress toward the closure of Guantánamo 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 Obama’s comments.

“The writing is on the wall,” said Daphne Eviatar, senior counsel at Human Rights First. “It’s time for the failed Guantánamo experiment to end and for our nation to return to the values that have kept us strong.”

The president of the AMA sent a letter last week to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, and The Miami Herald on Tuesday obtained a copy. In the letter Dr. Jeremy Lazarus advised Hagel that the AMA opposes force-feeding a detainee who is competent to decide for himself whether he wants to eat.

“Every competent patient has the right to refuse medical intervention, including life-sustaining interventions,” Lazarus said, adding that the AMA took the same position on force-feeding Guantánamo prisoners in 2009 and 2005.

“The AMA has long endorsed the World Medical Association Declaration of Tokyo, which is unequivocal on the point: ‘Where a prisoner refuses nourishment and is considered by the physician as capable of forming an unimpaired and rational judgment concerning the consequences of such a voluntary refusal of nourishment, he or she shall not be fed artificially.’ ”

The Pentagon had no response when asked whether Hagel had read the letter or whether a response had been made to the AMA.

Miami Herald staff writer Carol Rosenberg contributed to this report.

Read more Guantánamo stories from the Miami Herald

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