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Obama pledges to 're-engage' on Gitmo amid hunger strike

President Barack Obama – who began his presidency by signing an executive order requiring the closing of the terrorist detention center at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba – pledged Tuesday to renew his efforts to close the facility, where 100 of the 166 detainees are now involved in a weeks-long hunger strike.

“I don't want these individuals to die,” Obama said. “Obviously the Pentagon is trying to manage the situation as best as they can. But I think all of us should reflect on why exactly are we doing this. Why are we doing this?” 

If the detention center were ever closed, the prisoners now held there could be released to their countries of origin – if the governments of those countries were willing to repatriate them – or to a third country if that nation were willing to accept them. A third option, if Congress were to agree, would be to send them to maximum-security prison in the Unites States.

But Congress largely shuts off those options in a defense spending bill that Obama signed on Jan. 2.

President Barack Obama explains why he thinks America's detention facility at Guantanamo Bay needs to be shut down.

The law sets a very high bar for any detainee transfer to another country – reflecting the concern among many members of Congress that freed detainees could mount terrorist attacks on the United States or on American interests abroad.

It’s been clear for years that many members of the president’s party support his desire to close Guantanamo.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., said Tuesday after Obama’s press conference, “I’m glad the president has renewed his call for Congress to allow the closing of the prison at Guantanamo so that we can detain, try and sentence these detainees here or return them to their home countries. It should have been done a long time ago. Keeping Guantanamo open is not in our national interest, as David Petraeus and others have told us. Unfortunately, for several years a majority in Congress has prevented the president from acting.”

Although the curbs on his power to release or transfer detainees expires at the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30, it seems likely that Congress will again – as it has for the last several years – put restrictions on Obama’s power to release or move any of the Guantanamo detainees.

“I continue to believe that we've got to close Guantanamo,” the president told reporters at his press conference. He then presented the arguments he sees against keeping the facility open.

“It is expensive. It is inefficient. It hurts us, in terms of our international standing,” he said. “It lessens cooperation with our allies on counter-terrorism efforts. It is a recruitment tool for extremists.”

He pointed to other methods, saying, “we've got a whole bunch of individuals who have been tried who are currently in maximum security prisons around the country. 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.”

He vowed 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.”

He implied that at least some of those held at Guantanamo could safely be held at prisons in the United States, mentioning would-be Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad, a Pakistani-American who is a naturalized U.S. citizen, as an example of a terrorist who is being held in a federal prison.

Unlike Shahzad, those at Guantanamo are not U.S. citizens.

According to the Congressional Research Service, the defense authorization act that Obama signed into law in January puts the following restrictions on him:

  • It prohibits Defense Department money in the current fiscal year from being used to construct or modify prisons in the United States or U.S. territories in order to house detainees transferred from Guantanamo.
  • It prohibits funds from being used to transfer or release within the United States or U.S. territories the Sept. 11, 2001 attack planner Khalid Sheikh Mohammed or any other detainee who isn’t a U.S. citizen and was held on or after Jan. 20, 2009, at Guantanamo.
  • It bars the Obama administration from moving anyone detained at Guantanamo to the detainee’s country of origin, or to any other foreign country, unless Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel certifies to Congress that the country to which the individual is about to be transferred isn’t a designated state sponsor of terrorism. Hagel would also need to certify that the country has agreed to take steps to ensure that the detainees can’t take actions that threaten the United States, its citizens or its allies at any point in the future.
  • It prohibits any detainee transfer to another country if there is a confirmed case that any individual previously detained at Guantanamo and then transferred to a foreign country subsequently engaged in a terrorist activity.

Of the 166 detainees at Guantanamo, 86 have been conditionally cleared for transfer or release, but they remain in detention because the government of the host nation can’t give the United States the necessary security guarantees or that nation isn’t willing to take the detainee. 

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon, R-Calif., said in a statement, “Congress has not been idle on detention issues. For the past two years, our Committee has worked with our Senate counterparts to ensure that the certifications necessary to transfer detainees overseas are reasonable. The Administration has never certified a single transfer. Contrary to what President Obama has implied, here are no restrictions on releasing detainees who have won their habeas cases in federal court."

NBC’s Courtney Kube contributed to this story.

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