Guantánamo

Obama hints that he may conclude he can close Guantánamo prison on his own

President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference in the White House Brady Press Briefing Room, in Washington, D.C., Friday, Dec. 18, 2015.
President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference in the White House Brady Press Briefing Room, in Washington, D.C., Friday, Dec. 18, 2015. ASSOCIATED PRESS

President Barack Obama left open the possibility Friday that he might seek to close the Guantánamo Bay military detention facility by executive action in the new year, fulfilling a goal that has eluded him since his first day in office.

The president said at a news conference that he continues to prefer to work with Congress on a plan that would shut the facility in Cuba. He noted that by early next year, fewer than 100 people will be imprisoned there, and said its ongoing existence betrays America’s ideals.

“We see how Guantánamo has been used to create this mythology that America is at war with Islam,” Obama said. “And for us to close it is part of our counterterrorism strategy that is supported by our military, our diplomatic and our intelligence teams.”

We see how Guantánamo has been used to create this mythology that America is at war with Islam.

President Barack Obama

Obama said that though Congress will “every once in a while … surprise you,” he acknowledged that acting on his own authority to close Guantánamo “may prove necessary,” a conclusion he has reached on other major issues including climate and immigration.

The Pentagon detention center at the U.S. Navy base in southeast Cuba currently holds 107 captives, 48 of them approved for release with security agreements by the nation that agrees to receive them. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter has signed off on the transfers of 17, which could happen next month, reducing the prison population to some 90 captives kept by a military task force of more than 2,100 troops and civilians.

Obama arrived in the White House briefing room just after Congress agreed to a sweeping spending and tax agreement that all but ensures the years-long fiscal battles between the parties have come to an end.

That agreement, though imperfect, Obama said, gives him and congressional Republicans a “runway” to “get some things done for the American people.”

But it’s clear that much of what the president is able to accomplish will depend on his interpretation of executive authority, not only on Guantánamo but on such issues as gun safety and even criminal justice reform. The White House also announced nearly 100 commutations and two pardons Friday, largely for individuals serving time for drug prosecutions.

The news conference offered the president an opportunity to tout what he saw as areas of progress at the end of a year his critics saw as the start of a period of irrelevance but which he has preferred to dub the “fourth quarter” of his presidency. Much of what Obama was able to accomplish in 2015 was also through executive authority, including a major climate deal.

The president vowed a similarly active year ahead.

“In 2016, I’m going to leave it out all on the field,” he said.

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