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Gitmo closure elusive, Obama looks at other steps

Friday - 5/3/2013, 3:34am  ET

FILE - In this June 27, 2006 file photo, reviewed by a US Department of Defense official, US military guards walk within Camp Delta military-run prison, at the Guantanamo Bay US Naval Base, Cuba. President Barack Obama's stated desire to try anew to close the Guantanamo Bay prison remains a tough sell in Congress. The White House may look instead toward smaller steps, such as a new push to move some terror suspects overseas. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley, file)

NEDRA PICKLER
Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Despite President Barack Obama's new vow, closing the Guantanamo Bay prison is still a tough sell in Congress. So the White House may look instead toward smaller steps like transferring some terror suspects back overseas.

Shutting down the prison at the U.S. naval base in Cuba is a goal that has eluded Obama since he took office. In his first week, he signed an executive order for its closure, but Congress has used its budgetary power to block detainees from being moved to the United States.

Now, with 100 of the 166 prisoners on a hunger strike in protest of their indefinite detention and prison conditions, Obama is promising a renewed push before Congress and has ordered a review of his administrative options. The White House is acknowledging its process to review prisoner cases for possible release has not been implemented quickly enough and says the president is considering reappointing a senior official at the State Department to focus on transfers out of the prison.

Guantanamo had slipped down the agenda of the president who promised to close it during his campaign five years ago but has transferred few prisoners out in recent years. Conditions at the camp are tense, with 23 prisoners who are in danger of starving themselves now being force-fed through nasal tubes and some 40 naval medical personnel arriving over the weekend to deal with the strike that shows no sign of ending. While the global community has pressured the United States to shut Guantanamo, most of the American public and their representatives in Congress have been opposed to removing the terror suspects from their isolated captivity.

"Guantanamo is not necessary to keep America safe," the president argued at a White House news conference Tuesday. "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."

Obama's comments revived an issue that hasn't been prominent in recent political debate, with some of the most recent national polling more than a year old. An ABC News/Washington Post survey in February 2012 found 70 percent of the public approving of keeping the prison open and a quarter disapproving. Five percent had no opinion.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a leading opponent of closure, responded to Obama's latest call by citing last year's administration report that 28 percent of the roughly 600 released detainees were either confirmed or suspected of later engaging in militant activity.

"They're individuals hell-bent on our destruction and destroying our way of life," Graham said in a statement. "There is bipartisan opposition to closing Gitmo."

Republicans and several Democrats have repeatedly blocked efforts by Obama to take the initial steps toward closure. The law that Congress passed and Obama signed in March to keep the government running includes a longstanding provision that prohibits any money for the transfer of Guantanamo detainees to the United States or its territories. It also bars spending to overhaul any U.S. facility in the U.S. to house detainees.

That makes it essentially illegal for the government to transfer the men it wants to continue holding, including five who were charged before a military tribunal with orchestrating the Sept. 11 attacks. But that doesn't mean the administration's hands are completely tied.

Eight-six prisoners at Guantanamo have been cleared for transfer to other countries. Such transfers were common under President George W. Bush and at the beginning of the Obama administration. They stopped after Congress imposed new security restrictions over concerns that some prisoners might be released by foreign governments and return to the battlefield.

The administration could get around the restriction by issuing a national security waiver through the Pentagon, something it hasn't done so far.

Obama signed an executive order two years ago establishing review procedures for detainees to determine if continued detention was warranted, beginning with hearings before an interagency Periodic Review Board. The order required the reviews to begin by March 2012, but the administration has yet to announce any hearings.

Obama spokesman Jay Carney said Wednesday that the administration plans to get the board running, "which has not moved forward quickly enough." He also said Obama is considering the reappointment of a special envoy for closing Guantanamo at the State Department, responsible for trying to persuade countries to accept inmates approved for release. The former envoy, Ambassador Daniel Fried, was reassigned earlier this year and not replaced.

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