WASHINGTON -- The White House said Wednesday that despite President Barack Obamas pledge to do what he can to close the detention center at Guantánamo Bay, a moratorium on sending cleared detainees back to Yemen remains in place a policy that, if unchanged, provides perhaps the biggest obstacle to shuttering the controversial island prison.
The moratorium on transfers to Yemen, the home country for more than half the men detained at Guantánamo, reflects the irony of Obamas dilemma: While hes blamed Congress for blocking closure of the offshore prison he calls a recruitment tool for extremists, his policies are also contributing factors something human rights groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, say he could rectify by taking steps on his own.
For years, the Obama administration seemingly had reached an accommodation at Guantánamo, even as the likelihood of its closure faded. Congress in 2009 revamped the military commissions system for trying detainees accused of crimes, providing, the administration said, a fairer justice system. Most of the detainees, the vast majority of whom have not been accused of a crime, were considered cooperative and lived in a communal setting where they were allowed to watch television, serve their own food and mix with one another. Guards had minimal contact with the detainees.
All of that ended earlier this year, however, when detainees began a hunger strike that now involves nearly two-thirds of the 166 men held at Guantánamo. Last month, guards at the facility forced all of the prisoners formerly in a communal setting back into single, locked cells. The Pentagon has dispatched additional medical personnel to the detention facility, in part to handle the up-to twice-daily force feeding of, at last count, 23 of the hunger strikers. The International Committee of the Red Cross and the American Medical Association have criticized the administrations policy of force feeding hunger-striking detainees.
Obama pledged during a news conference Tuesday to redouble efforts to fulfill his first-term campaign promise to close the detention center. On Wednesday, White House spokesman Jay Carney outlined what steps the administration is considering.
Carney said the administration is looking at reappointing a senior official at the State Department to renew a focus on repatriating or transferring detainees that it determines can be returned to their home countries or third countries. Daniel Fried, the State Department employee who had been responsible for resettling detainees, was reassigned in January and his office was closed.
The White House also will look to jumpstart the periodic review board process for determining whether detainees can be released a process that Carney said has not moved forward quickly enough.
But Carney cautioned that closing the facility will also require congressional agreement, noting that Congress has refused to spend money to transfer detainees not eligible for release to prisons in the United States.
We have to work with Congress and try to convince members of Congress that the overriding interest here, in terms of our national security, as well as our budget, is to close Guantánamo Bay, Carney said. He wouldnt say whether Obama would personally lobby members of Congress but said, I think you heard from the president yesterday that he feels very strongly about this.