WASHINGTON — 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.
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.