Six months after he ordered creation of the special positions, President Barack Obama on Monday met with his two “special envoys for Guantánamo closure” at the White House, which issued a statement calling the prison camps costly both financially and in U.S. standing overseas.
Clifford Sloan, the State Department’s special envoy has been on the job since July 1. But Paul Lewis, his Pentagon counterpart, started work Friday. A photo issued after the meeting showed both side by side at the Oval Office, with Sloan talking to Obama.
“The Guantánamo facility continues to drain our resources and harm our standing in the world,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said in a statement.
During the meeting, he said, Obama “thanked the two special envoys for their important work,” and made clear “he remains fully committed to closing the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay.”
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As of Monday, the Pentagon held 164 prisoners at Guantánamo — just three convicted of war crimes and six awaiting death penalty trials by military tribunal. A largely rotational combined military and civilian workforce of 2,100 troops and contractors run the detention center compound.
A total of 84 of the captives have been approved for transfer to their home countries or resettlement elsewhere, and the White House said that Obama “made clear that the special envoys have his full support as they work to facilitate the transfer of Guantánamo detainees.”
Congress has used purse-string legislation to so far thwart Obama’s closure ambitions by blocking the use of federal funds for civilian trials of some prisoners and transfers to U.S. lockups or other nations. Congress also legislated Defense Department reporting restrictions prior to transfer that administration officials also complicated plans to downsize the prisoner population.
“To the greatest extent possible,” Carney said, “the administration will continue transferring detainees who have been cleared to go to other countries and we call again on Congress to lift the restrictions on detainee transfers, which have significantly limited our ability to responsibly reduce the detainee population and ultimately close the facility.”
Obama announced the creation of the two jobs in a May address at the National Defense University amid a widespread hunger strike at the prison that had spread to more than 100 prisoners. “Look at the current situation, where we are force-feeding detainees who are being held on a hunger strike,” the president said.
As of Monday, the military said 14 prisoners were on hunger strike — each man sufficiently malnourished to be force-fed if he doesn’t voluntarily submit to nasogastric feedings or drink a dose of Ensure on his own.
“We are spending almost $1 million per detainee per year to house detainees at Guantánamo – that’s nearly $200 million dollars annually in an era of sequestration and tighter budgets,” the White House added.