President Barack Obama said he will mount a renewed effort to close the Guantanamo Bay prison camp in Cuba, where scores of prisoners have been on a hunger strike.
“I’m going to go back at this,” Obama said at a White House news conference today. “I’ve asked my team to review everything that’s currently being done in Guantanamo, everything that we can do administratively, and I’m going to re-engage with Congress to try to make the case that this is not something that’s in the best interest of the American people.”
Obama’s campaign promise to close the prison camp foundered in his first term after opposition in Congress. Many lawmakers opposed transferring Guantanamo prisoners to U.S. sites, and other countries were often reluctant to accept prison transfers.
The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Representative Howard “Buck” McKeon, signaled today he is prepared to fight the proposal again.
“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,” the California Republican said in a statement.
A hunger strike that began in February with a handful of prisoners has now grown to about 100, said Army Lieutenant Colonel Todd Breasseale. The camp holds 166 prisoners, he said.
About 40 additional Navy medical personnel arrived at Guantanamo last weekend to assist with caring for inmates on the hunger strike, said Lieutenant Colonel Samuel House, a prison spokesman.
As many as 21 of the 100 inmates on strike have lost enough body weight to be approved for feeding through a tube that’s inserted through their noses, House said.
“The bottom line is we will not allow them to die of starvation,” he said.
Obama used a question about the hunger strike to make a new pitch for closing a camp that sprang up on the Guantanamo Bay Naval Station as an ad hoc location to house suspected terrorists captured in Afghanistan in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
“It is critical for us to understand that Guantanamo 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.”
Keeping “over 100 individuals in a no-man’s land in perpetuity” is not a sustainable policy, Obama said.
Senator Dianne Feinstein, chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, asked the administration to review the status of 86 prisoners who had been previously cleared for transfer to other countries.
“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,” the California Democrat said in a statement.
Senator Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat who heads the Judiciary Committee, today endorsed Obama’s call for Guantanamo’s closing.
“In the years since Congress first blocked resolving this, the reasons for closing it have only multiplied,” Leahy said in a statement. “The deteriorating situation at Guantanamo, including the ongoing and expanding hunger strikes by prisoners -- many of whom have never been convicted of any crime and are eligible for release -- is disturbing and unacceptable.”
Obama contrasted the Guantanamo prisoners, many of whom have yet to be charged with a crime, with terrorists recently convicted in federal courts for plots that included an attempt to detonate bombs in Times Square and on a plane bound for Detroit.
“We’ve got a whole bunch of individuals who have been tried who are currently in maximum-security prisons around the country,” Obama said. “Nothing’s happened to them. Justice has been served. It’s been done in a way that’s consistent with our Constitution, consistent with due process, consistent with rule of law, consistent with our traditions.”
If Guantanamo isn’t closed, he said, “It’s going to get worse. It’s going to fester.”